Podcast: Dan Dennett and Sean Carroll on illusions, consciousness, free will, and other stuff

Reader Paul called my attention to a new episode of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast. It’s two hours long, so of course I don’t have the patience to listen to it (you can by clicking on the screenshot below), but fortunately there’s a transcript you can get by clicking on “Click to show episode transcript” near the bottom.

Everyone seems to be hosting podcasts these days, and I’m not sure why. My best guess is that most people would prefer to listen to discussion than to read a website post or even a transcript, as they can do other things while listening—especially driving. (I read faster than I can listen, and so prefer the printed page, even for discussions.) Also, it’s only on podcasts where you get a spontaneous give-and-take between two people, and when they’re both of the caliber of the physicist Sean Carroll and philosopher Dan Dennett, you get some fascinating listening—or in my case, reading. Oh, and if you’re being interviewed by a savvy person like Sean, you can get your ideas out there in extended form without having to write them down, but they’re preserved on the Internet.

I did quickly read through the transcript, and wanted to say a few words on free will. Dennett and Carroll are both determinists, but underplay that by simply saying there are “no miracles” in one’s actions or decisions. To me that is an overly quick acknowledgment of a problem far more important than simply confecting a definition of free will that comports with how most people conceive it. (Actually, when people are asked for their understanding of free will, most espouse a dualist, libertarian view, one in which one really could have chosen or behaved otherwise through changing one’s will.) But people like Sean and Dan, and other colleagues like Steve Pinker and Richard Dawkins, seem to prefer to comport a definition of free will with what they conceive of as how most people regard it. They’re wrong about how most people regard it, but that doesn’t necessarily overturn their project, for philosophers can make us think about those concepts.

As readers here know, I don’t much care about the semantic games involved in philosophical compatibilism, especially because every philosopher has his or her favorite definition of “free will”—and the compatibilist definitions are incompatible with each other! So what is free will? I prefer to think of it as people always have (except for a few Sophisticated Philosophers): the illusion that we are able to control our actions by force of will alone, i.e., libertarian free will). I also prefer to concentrate on determinism (which Sophisticated Philosophers don’t deal with much) than on the semantic games of compatibilism.

But I digress; here’s the podcast:

The part on free will starts at 1:41:03, and I want to deal with one issue: the social consequences of doing away with the idea of free will (or of telling people that their behaviors are all determined by the laws of physics). Dan and Sean seem to think that people like me and Sam Harris are engaged in “anti-social behavior” and “cognitive vandalism”, and we should just shut up about determinism.

But first, both Dan and Sean aver that they are genuine determinists. Just for the record:

1:41:03 SC: So would we take the same angle on free will, that there’s an aspect of it that’s real, aspect which is an illusion?

1:41:12 DD: Yes and no, of course.

1:41:15 SC: That’s a philosopher’s favorite answer to everything.

1:41:16 DD: Yes, yes. The traditional idea of free will where somehow our bodies or our brains are shielded from causation, that’s crap. It’s just gotta be false.

1:41:36 SC: We’re not laws unto ourselves.

1:41:36 DD: We’re not laws unto… There’s no miracles happening like that. So if that’s what you think free will has to be, if you think free will is incompatible with, say, determinism, then there’s no free will. Then free will isn’t real. It’s an illusion. But I would prefer to say free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is.

And that’s the end of the admission that our behaviors are determined. Pity that, because the implications of determinism for behavior are, to me, profound—far more profound than confecting conceptions of compatibilistic free will. Why don’t philosophers like Dan discuss the consequences of what they’ve just admitted? Are they not interesting? (Yes, some philosophers like Alex Rosenberg do talk about that stuff.)

Some of you may say that there’s no real consequences of realizing that all our behaviors are determined by physical laws, but I’d say you’re dead wrong. It’s wrong because the law already takes into account that there are legal mitigations of behavior if you have no libertarian free will. Now just extend that to all criminal acts. No criminal behavior is a free choice. And that means that there are mitigations that have to be considered in every case: what made you do the act? If you think there are no consequences of that musing, you’re doubly wrong. I’m not saying, of course, that we should dispense with punishment, incarceration, or the idea of responsibility, but we need to fix the system of judgment and punishment.

Then Dan offers two different definitions of free will that comport with his (and Sean’s and some other people’s) notion of free will. The first is if you’re coerced into something, then you don’t have free will:

1:42:17 DD: Not just an explanatory role, it plays a huge role in people’s lives, as I was saying before. Since our society has the concept of free will, when I signed the mortgage papers for this house I was asked if I was signing this of my own free will. I said yes, yes I am, yes.

1:42:44 SC: Did the agent have any idea who he was talking to or who she was talking to?

1:42:46 DD: Well, the notary was reading this off a piece of paper and I was only too happy to answer. But some people don’t have free will. Some people are incapacitated. Some people aren’t in control. So there’s a very real difference, and it makes a huge difference in life. . .

What does it mean, though, to be “in control”? It surely doesn’t mean that you can, by your will, control whether or not you sign a mortgage. What it must mean is that your brain is wired in such a way, through both evolution and experience, that it conforms to society’s expectations of your behavior—you appear calm and controlled. And what is “free” about “lack of external coercion”? Maybe you’re signing the mortgage because your spouse or kids want you to have that house, but you don’t. Or you don’t want to commit that kind of money. Is that “free”? Is that “you being in control”? I don’t think so. There are different things that coerce people into doing different things, but none of them are “choices”.  There are just different degrees of weighing up things that make you decide one way or another. All of it can be seen as neural coercion.

Which brings us to Dan’s second definition of free will: that it’s the behavioral outcomes of a complex and evolved brain that neurologically “weighs” different outcomes and then spits out a decision. This is the view he takes in his latest book on free will (I believe it’s Elbow Room), and is instantiated here:

1:43:36 DD: Empirically, we have millions of degrees of freedom, and we’re not in anybody’s control but our own. Or we can try to control people. Parents. I like the idea that parents eventually have to launch their children, and once they’ve launched them, they’re no longer guided missiles. They’re now autonomous. And how do we dare let people do this? We dare let people do this, because we trust that people will have done their best to turn their offspring into self controlled responsible agents.

But what does “self control” mean here? Surely it’s not that we are able to override our neurons and control our behavior when we could have behaved otherwise! No, it cannot be that, for that’s the libertarian free will that Sean and Dan eschew. What Dan means is that some people have brains that make them behave in a way society expects if we’re to operate harmoniously. But whether we do that or not is a function of our genes and environment. The very term “self controlled responsible agents” even implies libertarianism.

As I’ve said before, yes we are responsible for our decisions, but only in the sense that society must hold us accountable if society is to run smoothly. We are not, however,  morally responsible for our decisions, as that implies libertarian free will. Indeed, most people who are asked whether determinism makes people morally responsible will say “no.”

Dan and Sean then decry the idea, which I’ve broached, that many people promote compatibilistic free will because it makes us seem less like puppets, and that’s good for both us and society. And indeed, there is a tradition of trying to find definitions of free will that are compatible with determinism for purely philosophical reasons. I’m just not sure that, at least for Dan, he’s free of the “do-it-for-the-good-of-society” motivation. Here he and Sean reject any of these motivations:

1:45:04 SC: And I know that you said things, I wanna take this opportunity to clarify as much as we can, you’ve sort of hinted at the idea that even though we sophisticated scientists and philosophers know that there are laws of physics and we all obey them we should let the people have their free will in some sense. Because it makes them act more morally. That may or may not be true for me personally, that fact has nothing to do with why I think that it’s sensible to talk about free will. My reason for talking about free will is just the answer you just gave, which is that it does play this role in helping to explain what goes on.

1:45:39 DD: Yeah. Well I think… I don’t think that the idea that we have free will is a sort of holy myth that we should preserve for the good of hoi polloi. No, no, no, we all need it. I think it’s extremely paternalistic, patronizing to say, “Well I don’t need the illusion of free will, but everyday folks they need it.” No, I think that’s… First of all I think that’s just obnoxious.

1:46:15 SC: Right.

But Dan has also said this:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

Well, I disagree vehemently with jettisoning the idea of holding people to account, but I’ve explained that a gazillion times. And it’s a deliberate exaggeration to say that abjuring moral responsibility means emptying out prisons and abolishing mortgages. You can be held responsible, and jailed, without being held morally responsible.

Dan also said this, in his Erasmus Prize lecture:

We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—that we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful, mistake. . . We [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.”

That sounds an awful lot to me like the view that rebutting the “puppet” view is important because the spread of that view would harm society. (It won’t, by the way: I know of no hard determinist who has harmed society.)

And then Dan takes off the gloves and punches down at me, and punches on the level at Sam Harris as well, for these statements are clearly aimed at us (my emphasis):

1:46:18 DD: We all go through life, gauging our opportunities, making choices taking them as seriously as we do, which is sometimes not seriously enough and sometimes…

1:46:33 SC: In trying to persuade others.

1:46:34 DD: And sometimes too serious, in trying to persuade others. It’s no secret that this pattern of activity including mental activity, including hamlet-like thinking and mulling and musing and worrying, no secret why it exists, it’s what makes civilization possible. And I for one would rather live in a civilized world.

1:47:07 SC: But so, that’s a very crucial distinction I think that has the danger of slipping by there, it’s not that we need to tell people they have free will to make them civilized. It’s that we have to appreciate that we have free will so that we create civilization.

1:47:22 DD: Yes, absolutely right, yes.

1:47:24 SC: Got it. Okay, that’s very good.

1:47:25 DD: But then that does mean that the free will skeptics, including some heavy hitting scientists.

1:47:34 SC: Some of our best friends. Yeah.

1:47:36 DD: Yeah, some of my best friends. They’re really engaging in a sort of an anti-social behavior, it’s a sort of cognitive vandalism. I try to shock them with that term. . .

I object strongly to this characterization of people like Sam and me as engaging in anti-social behavior and cognitive vandalism. It’s almost an ad hominem argument. The truth of what I talk about—of determinism, which happens to be true for behavior—is independent of its consequences for ourselves or society. (I happen to think that grasping those consequences is in fact good for us and society.) I could respond by saying that compatibilism is a form of cognitive displacement, of sweeping the really important and socially consequential problems under the rug. But I won’t.

Dan tries to land one more punch. Here he’s talking about the experiment in which neuroscientists tell someone they’ve implanted a device in someone’s head that controls their behavior, and won’t let them do bad stuff, but it’s a lie. And then the person goes ahead and does bad stuff expecting to be controlled. What that has to do with free will defies me, because the person’s behavior in that circumstance is still determined—controlled by the environmental input that the neuroscientists have lied to him.

And here’s Dan’s attempted roundhouse (my emphasis):

1:49:19 DD: Okay, so I wonder if Black Mirror has the sequel that I have… So this fellow goes off and reassured that he’s got this safety net, he becomes a little bit slovenly in his decision making and he makes some bad decisions, pretty soon he ends up in court. And the judge confronts him and asks him, “What about this?” He says, “Well, no. I don’t have any free will.” “You know I’m controlled… “

1:49:49 SC: Just obeying the laws of physics.

1:49:52 DD: I just obey the laws of physics. And the neurosurgeons, you know they are… They’re… I’m their puppet.” And the judge calls in the neurosurgeon says, “Did you tell this man that when you put this device in that henceforth that he would be a sort of electronically controlled puppet.” And she said, “Yeah, yeah we did.” He says, “It’s not true, is it?” She says, “No, of course not. We’re just messing with his brain.” Now, she did something evil. Well, if she in her white coat, her scientist white coat is doing something evil for that guy, what about you folks out there in science land who are going around telling everybody that free will is an illusion, that they don’t, that they’re all really just puppets? Why isn’t that the same sort of anti-social behavior that this neurosurgeon, this imaginary neurosurgeon is engaged in?

That’s sort of nasty, and offends me. If we are puppets in the sense that our neurons pull our strings and we can’t affect that by some numinous will, well, that’s an important truth—not “anti-social behavior.” In the end, although Dan denies being motivated in his compatibilism by fear that the notion of pure determinism will harm society, it looks an awful lot to me like that idea imbues much of what he says about free will.

The truth of a proposition is not determined by how it makes people feel. If determinism leads to a bleak world view (I don’t think it does), so be it; but there are real social benefits that come from grasping determinism.  If I’m an antisocial person, and have influenced any readers here to behave badly by promulgating determinism, by all means let me know in the comments! Not that it will stop me, as the laws of physics have made me a determinist!



  1. GBJames
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink


  2. Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I remember Sean saying that he missed the license to interview smart people from different fields after he finished The Big Picture, which is why he started the podcast, so he could always have the license to talk to smart people from fields way different from his.


  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:33 am | Permalink


  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Calling hard determinists “anti-social” is such an ad hominem attack that it calls into question the motivations of the attacker. It’s absolutely ridiculous to suggest that because you are convinced by the evidence that people don’t make decisions outside of the laws of physics, that our minds are controlled by a series of inputs from the environment, experience, etc., are trying to harm society in a vicious disregard for human rights. It becomes pretty hard for someone who says that to deny that they feel that acknowledging a lack of free will damages society and leads to chaos.

  5. Mark Reaume
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Excellent timing on this post, I just took off my headphones after listening to this podcast. I was thinking about sending this to you given the snippets above then I saw that you just posted on it. Serendipity!

    I like Dan and Sean but on this topic I just can’t see eye to eye with them.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    We may not see eye to eye on foreign affairs but I am with you on this free will business. I am not an expert but it all seems very reasonable to me. It also means there is a great need to overhaul our justice system in this country. The road block for many people is nothing but religion.

  7. Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    “I’m not saying, of course, that we should dispense with punishment, incarceration, or the idea of responsibility, but we need to fix the system of judgment and punishment.”

    A suggestion, Jerry, is that maybe you could discuss at greater length, with specific examples and alternative punishments, how you want the legal system to change. I’d presume that you’d prefer something like the Nordic system to the US system (and I think most compatibilists would agree with you there), but do you want radical changes beyond that?

    I listened to the 2-hr podcast, and came to conclusion that you, Dan and Sean Carroll all agree on everything except how you talk about free will. Thus, the differences between you are purely about the words you use to describe these issues, not about how you want society to be.

    “… every philosopher has his or her favorite definition of “free will”—and the compatibilist definitions are incompatible with each other!”

    I’m not convinced they are incompatible, they are more putting the emphasis on different aspects.

    “And what is “free” about “lack of external coercion”?”

    It’s the only form of freedom that exists, and it’s the form of freedom that matters. Being free to choose whether to wear a hijab or criticise the government is different from fearing to do so because you’d be put in jail.

    “Dan and Sean seem to think that people like me … should just shut up about determinism.”

    I don’t think they’re saying you should shut up about *determinism*, but about the notion that determinism then rules out “free will” and “moral responsibility”, because they see holding people responsible for their acts as necessary. Of course you agree, as you’ve said, we do indeed need to hold people responsible for their acts and deter criminal acts by punishment. As above, the differences are semantic: you and Dan agree on the substance, and that society needs to hold people “responsible”, but he uses the label “moral” for that concept whereas you don’t.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      “I listened to the 2-hr podcast, and came to conclusion that you, Dan and Sean Carroll all agree on everything except how you talk about free will.”

      Same here, and I agree. I am not convinced that retaining a concept of freewill is as important as Dan feels it is, but then I don’t think that teaching the implications determinism has for human behavior is as important to realize reform of our justice systems as Jerry thinks it is.

      Regardless of what one might want to call it I do think that Dan is correct that human level consciousness affords humans very many more degrees of freedom compared to nearly all other organisms and that this is a significant factor in our cognitive abilities and behavior. As in order of magnitude or quantum leap.

      My favorite moment was when Dan exclaimed precisely how I’ve always felt about the notion of P Zombies.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      I listened to the 2-hr podcast, and came to conclusion that you [Jerry], Dan and Sean Carroll all agree on everything except how you talk about free will.

      But you’re mistaken, at least about Jerry vs Sean Carroll (not sure where Dennett fits in). Sean understands that determinism *as science has it* does not imply universal causality. (Universal causality meaning that for all states of the universe S1, S2 at different times, S1 causes S2 if t1 < t2.) Sean has read Bertrand Russell, and even if he hadn't, he has the expertise to recognize this as readily as you or I recognize our best friend. So Sean has another solid reason for rejecting incompatibilism, besides the one Dennett expresses with the concept of Real Patterns.

      The free will argument isn't just about the definition of free will. It's also about the definition – or better, a thorough understanding – of determinism in modern physics. And when I say "modern" physics, the emphasis is on relativity, not so much QM.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        Jerry has readily accepted that there may be some dice-throwing non-causality in physics. But nearly everyone agrees that that is pretty irrelevant to “free will”. (Since the product of a dice throw is not the product of a “will”.)

        • Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          Did you read the part where I said “the emphasis is on relativity, not so much QM”? Relativity shows that our intuitive idea of time is deeply wrongheaded. The temporal bi-directionality of determinism of physical laws shows that our intuitive idea of causation is also deeply flawed. This is where intuitive incompatibilism starts: with an un-physical picture of time and causality.

          • Posted January 14, 2020 at 1:50 am | Permalink

            I don’t accept that “temporal bi-directionality of determinism” has been established.

            • Posted January 14, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

              “Charge, parity, and time reversal symmetry is a fundamental symmetry of physical laws under the simultaneous transformations of charge conjugation (C), parity transformation (P), and time reversal (T). CPT is the only combination of C, P, and T that is observed to be an exact symmetry of nature at the fundamental level.” — Wiki on CPT symmetry

              Combine that with a standard definition of determinism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Causal Determinism) and you’ll see that CPT-symmetry implies bi-directional determinism.

              Of course, all science is tentative, so if your point is that a future theory of quantum gravity might discard CPT symmetry – well, maybe.

              • Posted January 15, 2020 at 3:50 am | Permalink

                Time-reversal symmetry is not the same as causation running both ways in time. Causation still runs past to future.

              • Posted January 15, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                Yes. When it runs at all – which depends on the level of physical description considered.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 14, 2020 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        Your take on Sean’s views of determinism and free will did not seem accurate to me, so you’ve inspired me to review some of what he has written on these subjects. Having done that I am pretty sure that you have misinterpreted him here.

        Sean pretty clearly does not think that the question of determinism is settled. He does have clear ideas about whether or not various theories (classical mechanics, relativity, QM) are deterministic or not. He has said more than once that GR is deterministic locally and that that’s all that matters with respect to free will. For example . . .

        ” Much more importantly, these kinds of GR phenomena (examples in which traditional global determinism breaks down) are very far away from our everyday lives; there’s really no relevance to discussions of free will. GR violates global determinism in the strict sense, but certainly obeys local determinism; that’s all that should be required for this kind of discussion.”[On Determinism, Posted on December 5, 2011 by Sean Carroll]

        Regarding Sean’s thoughts on what a future final theory of everything may look like with respect to determinism . . .

        “My personal suspicion is that the ultimate laws of physics will embody something like the many-worlds philosophy: the underlying laws are perfectly deterministic, but what happens along any specific history is irreducibly probabilistic.”[On Determinism, Posted on December 5, 2011 by Sean Carroll]

        But despite what the laws of physics may be, classical or quantum, deterministic or probabilistic, Sean thinks these issues are not relevant to the subject of free will.

        “Of course, this is all utterly irrelevant for questions of free will. . . . We can imagine four different possibilities: determinism + free will, indeterminism + free will, determinism + no free will, and indeterminism + no free will. All of these are logically possible, and in fact beliefs that some people actually hold! Bringing determinism into discussions of free will is a red herring.”

        “If that’s your definition of free will (free will that can deviate from the laws of physics), then it doesn’t matter whether the laws of physics are deterministic or not — all that matters is that there are laws.”

        “On the other hand, if you use a weak sense of free will, along the lines of “a useful theory of macroscopic human behavior models people as rational agents capable of making choices,” then free will is completely compatible with the underlying laws of physics, whether they are deterministic or not.”[On Determinism, Posted on December 5, 2011 by Sean Carroll]

        Regarding causality and patterns, yes, Sean certainly understands and has explained that the current understanding of physics is that cause and effect are not fundamental to the workings of the universe. However, . . .

        “Of course the idea of causality is still crucial to our everyday lives, so I talk a bit about how cause-and-effect relations are emergent phenomena in a macroscopic world with a pronounced arrow of time.”[Big Picture Part One: Cosmos, Posted on May 8, 2016 by Sean Carroll]

        Sean has also explained numerous times that his view is that free will is a higher order emergent phenomenon. Going by what he has written he would likely think that introducing “The temporal bi-directionality of determinism of physical laws” in the context of free will is a Red Herring and that cause-and-effect is a valid concept at the macroscopic and local levels that pertain to human behaviors. When added with his clearly stated views on determinism and the irrelevance of the nature of the laws of physics to the subject of free will, I think you may have misinterpreted Sean’s views.

        • Posted January 14, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

          I think you have summarized Sean Carroll’s views on free will correctly here. As far as I can tell, he and Dennett have similar views though they use very different language to describe them.

        • Posted January 14, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          Impressive research, but I don’t think the bi-directionality of determinism is a red herring. First, determinism does not imply universal causality, as you acknowledge by pointing out that cause and effect are not fundamental to the workings of the universe. But second, if you look at the philosophical arguments for incompatibilism, and Sean is familiar with those, they NEED the premise of universal causality, or something so close to it as makes no difference. Incompatibilist arguments talk about a replay of the universe where every microscopic detail is exactly the same, for example.

          A macroscopically specified state of affairs is not sufficient to guarantee a particular human action. That is precisely the hole that Christian List drove his Mack truck through – he was asking “could we do otherwise” in the context of macroscopic specification of human beings, their environment, and their thoughts and desires. Now, List had reasons why he thought that was an appropriate framing of the problem, which I don’t want to get into. Jerry’s response included the idea that we should include the microscopic details, not ignore them.

          In Sean’s Mindscape “Ask me anything” podcast, I asked him about a case where one fine-grained state of the entire universe is deterministically related to a later one. I asked, does his view mean we should say that causality just disappears here? He said causality just disappears here.

          Yes, I know that Sean doesn’t emphasize these points when he talks about free will, but he is obviously aware of them, at least individually. I do hope he puts them together in an explanation some time, because he is uniquely qualified to do it.

        • Posted January 23, 2020 at 4:50 am | Permalink

          After listening to Sean’s podcast with Jenann Ismael, I have to admit that you guys are three-quarters right. Sean is aware of all the pieces of the bidirectional-laws argument, but seems not to see the way they show the traditional free will “problem” to be as imaginary as its traditional “solution”.

          But Sean had the opportunity to call “red herring” and he didn’t, he expressed appreciation of the point. See the transcript at 1:04:05 and 1:04:43.

          • darrelle
            Posted January 24, 2020 at 7:05 am | Permalink

            Thanks Paul, I’ll check it out.

  8. Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    ‘What does it mean, though, to be “in control”?’

    Free will is a social construct supported by our brain functionality. We, both as part of society and individually, decide what kinds of control make us responsible for our actions and what kinds do not. Although the details vary depending on the century and the society, common dimensions include:

    Age: We don’t hold children as responsible for some actions as their brains aren’t fully formed.

    Injury and disease: We don’t hold people responsible for their actions if their thinking is impaired by something out of their control. This probably also includes someone who was drugged against their will or without their knowledge.

    External coercion: If someone is forced to do something with a gun pointed at their head, they aren’t held responsible. Of course, this is a judgement call that might have to be argued in court.

    I know your definition of free will is different, so I am only suggesting that this is how Carroll and Dennett might answer your question.

  9. Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    You appear to think that Dennett has waffled in his opinions a little but I interpret what he’s saying differently.

    Dennett rejects the “do-it-for-the-good-of-society” motivation, as you say. He thinks it would be obnoxious to maintain one way of thinking for himself and other smart scientists and philosophers while recommending a different point of view for everyone else.

    When he “rebuts the puppet view”, I think he’s including himself in that. While we are slaves to the laws of physics, we shouldn’t act like it. We’re not puppets. I think Dennett might call this a useful illusion while Carroll thinks of it as an emergent behavior. This is a small difference, IMHO, but I prefer Carroll’s description; “illusion” just has too much baggage.

    • GBJames
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure there’s a substantive difference between “slave” and “puppet”.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        I agree there’s no difference between “slave” and “puppet” in this context. That wasn’t a distinction I was trying to make. We are all puppets or slaves to the fundamental laws of physics.

  10. Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I think Dennett uses harsh words against your position for what he thinks logically follows from it. Saying that everything we do is out of our control because of determinism seems to lead to a world in which no one is morally responsible for their actions. Now we know that you don’t actually think that but I (and Dennett apparently) still don’t understand how that doesn’t follow directly from your determinism arguments. I’m sure you’ve explained this before so perhaps you could point me to it once again.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Did you read what I wrote above. I think we are responsible for our actions in the sense that we are the individuals who do them, but we are not MORALLY responsible (that implies we could have made another choice). And I don’t see that “moral” responsibility adds anything to the consequences beyond “responsibility”. You still have to figure out how to treat the person who is found “guilty”.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        Yes and I’ve heard you make that distinction before. Thanks for reminding me. I still find the argument lacking though. By “responsibility” (not “moral responsibility), do you mean simply that a certain person physically performed a certain action? If I call someone a nitwit, am I responsible for that action but not morally responsible? If the person I said it to complains, can I just say that I couldn’t have done otherwise? I doubt even a hard determinist would accept that excuse.

        • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          It is a little differcult to drop the concept of morality when we humans have built over centuries, systems and behaviour trying to instill it in societies, in working towards pacifying our violent and disruptive tendencies, however trivial.
          In waltzes no free will and it’s seemingly counter productive hand break on cultural advancement.
          Pèhaps it is before it’s time to drop all talk of moral implications but in truth, it really will make no difference to outcomes (personal responsibility) other than switch the focus on to more humane sentencing laws and rehabiltation.
          If i were to speculate, this seachange would be a huge leap forward in human cognition, I actually think so called “free will” is a constrait to advancement, old and tired, and… the death knell for religion, in part why i think free will is corrupt but I’m not holding my breath.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        The addition “morally” responsible denotes whether we want to blame them and punish them.

        A bank teller who opens a safe when a robber points a gun at them is “responsible” for opening the safe, but not morally culpable.

        If, however, the same bank teller had conspired with the robber and they were acting out a plan, then they would be morally culpable.

      • KD
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        But that begs the question as to whether we are being IMMORALLY held legally responsible then, doesn’t it? Isn’t it IMMORAL to execute a person with severe intellectual disabilities for a capital offense?

        [And no wiggling into the death penalty being immoral, the current state of the law is IQ under about 70 and no death sentence. Is that an immoral legal distinction?]

      • Posted January 14, 2020 at 6:44 am | Permalink

        “…we are not MORALLY responsible (that implies we could have made another choice).”

        Moral responsibility cannot possibly hinge on whether one could have made another choice in the absence of any other physical differences in the universe. Because the absence of such differences ensures that we could have no reason for making a different choice. Any such reason would have to be instantiated as a physical difference, either in external conditions (about which we reason) or in the machinery of our brains (with which we reason). Lacking such differences, any differences in the choices we make would be purely random. And, as you have acknowledged, randomness cannot be the basis for free will.

        The fundamental problem here is that you are defining free will in a way that makes it logically impossible: causally determined behavior doesn’t count as free, but neither does random behavior, and those are the only two options. You are certainly right that that sort of free will doesn’t exist (in this universe or any other). But it is really difficult to see how it can then be the basis for judgements about moral responsibility or have any important implications for ethics at all.

        • Posted January 14, 2020 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          +1 again.

        • Vaal
          Posted January 14, 2020 at 11:23 am | Permalink

          +2 C.Z Marks!

          I think Jerry would reply that he, himself, was not defining moral responsibility as it relates to free will, but rather he is referencing “most people’s understanding of free will/moral responsibility” and rejecting it.

          But essentially the “mistake” we (compatibilists) think hard incompatibilists make is actually going along with this *purported* incoherent version of free will as the only way to conceive of “freedom.”
          And then by making the same mistake as libertarian free willers, the hard incompatibilists throw the baby out with the bathwater by dispensing with the very notion of free will (And no moral responsibility).

          Note I flagged “purported” above because I think this is also a crux of the debate.
          You wrote:

          But it is really difficult to see how it can then be the basis for judgements about moral responsibility or have any important implications for ethics at all.

          Exactly. And the implications of this is something I have argued here often. A libertarian notion of free will/morality, based as it is on incoherent conceptions of “possibilities” etc, entails that it simply can not be the real basis on which we conceive of “possibilities” in the world. We could never have evolved to apprehend truths about the nature of the world if our conceptual scheme were an incoherent libertarian-free-will conception of “possibility to do/do otherwise.”

          The REAL basis for our understanding of possibilities has to be COMPATIBLE with a deterministic reality to explain our survival in a deterministic world.

          (And that’s why we compatibilists keep pointing out when someone says “I could order the chicken or the beef” and “I could HAVE ordered the beef instead” this is not an incoherent metaphysical claim of a Libertarian Free Will sort, but a simple empirical inference of the type we make all day long to understand our powers in similar situations in the world).

          • Vaal
            Posted January 14, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

            ^^ To be clear, when I used “purported” what I meant was that, yes, Libertarian/contra-causal Free Will is incoherent or irrelevant.
            But it is *purported* that this is the conceptual scheme people have in mind when making everyday claim about their freedom to choose. It is that latter claim that I’m disputing. An incoherent conceptual scheme couldn’t allow us to successfully exchange information the way we do constantly by talking of “could” and “could have.”

            • Posted January 23, 2020 at 5:23 am | Permalink

              Well, surveys show that most people’s conception of free will is a libertarian conception (the study of Sarkeesian et al.) You are disputing a factual study, and if you think that most people realize they are determinists and have a different conception of free will, give the data.

              “Purported”? Really? I’ve cited studies to this effect.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Jerry has described many times that even given determinism people need to be held responsible for their actions because of the utility of doing so. Because it is a good way, perhaps the only way, given the way humans function, to create and maintain a decent society.

      Jerry has explained that people should be held responsible, but not morally responsible. I take it that what Jerry means by this is that we should not allow our perceptions of the morality of a bad actor’s bad actions to have any influence on figuring out how our justice system should deal with bad actors. Or, perhaps even better, we should accept the implications of determinism fully enough that we eventually refrain from even forming moral judgement about bad actors.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        I’ve never really understood the distinction that adding “moral” gives. Am I morally responsible for calling my neighbor a nitwit, assuming I own up to it or was reliably witnessed doing it? I know it wasn’t against the law so we don’t have to talk about criminal justice reform. Is “moral” a distinction that matters here? Let’s assume all the usual caveats that I have a sound mind, I’m older than 21, and no one had a gun to my head. I said it of my own free will. I do expect my neighbor to resent my action and perhaps even punish me by calling me a twit.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          My understanding, which may of course be wrong, is that Incompatibilists think that the term “moral” is invalid because they think the concept of morality entails dualism / magic freewill and is therefore invalid and better off discarded just like the term freewill. In Christian philosophies morality certainly does entail magic freewill.

          If morality is based on the idea that humans are free to choose what they will , free to choose to be good or bad, and it seems very clear to me that it is, then this makes sense as long as you stipulate what kind of freewill you are talking about, magic or Compatibilist. If you want to ditch the concept of (magic) freewill then it makes perfect sense to ditch the concept of morality along with it. If you want to retain a re-defined / ammended / clarified concept of free will then it makes sense to retain a likewise modified concept of morality.

          • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

            As a compatibilist, though I don’t like that term, I like to call it “everyday free will”, and I don’t believe most people think it involves magic. Even if they do, there’s an unmagical version like that used in contracts.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        …we should not allow our perceptions of the morality of a bad actor’s bad actions…

        Is not describing someone as a “bad actor” whose actions are “bad” a perception of morality?

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          I would say yes, yes it is.

  11. prinzler
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The best compatabilist argument I can imagine is that free will is an emergent property (albeit subjective to each person’s consciousness) that arises from deterministic physics.

    Has Sean Carroll advocated for this, given his discussion of emergence in “The Big Picture?”

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Search for Sean Carroll, preposterousuniverse dot com, free-will-is-as-real-as-baseball

      Sometimes WEIT eats my links, so I’m typing it out.

  12. KD
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Voluntary and involuntary nervous system?


    Voluntary and involuntary acts?


    Free will – act undertaken by the voluntary nervous system.

    Coercion – when one acts due to threat or violence emanating from someone else’s voluntary nervous system.

    Special rules for psychotics, because they are defective in reality-testing.

    Not to mention testable faculties like IQ, executive function, etc., rendering a person incompetent.

    To say the world is determined, but we can’t predict it, is distinguishable from an unpredictable world only if you posit God or some higher power who is able to perfectly make the measurements and infinitely perform the calculations.

    • GBJames
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      We are all defective in reality-testing, some just are better than others.

      • KD
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        This is from an actual court decision:

        He is psychotic, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and has been operating under the same active delusional system for ten or twelve years. These delusions revolve around a theory that there are people, whom he calls “flesh eaters”, who catch and sell and eat other people. It was on the belief that his parents were among this group, and that God had ordered him to do so, that the defendant killed them. The defendant sees the “mark of the beast” on the Pope, President Reagan and others.

        It is a little more pronounced than good/bad reality testing, hence “psychosis”.

        • GBJames
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          Yes. This fellow is/was over near the edge on a distribution. That doesn’t disprove the existence of a distribution nor that we are all defective to some degree. If we weren’t, optical illusions wouldn’t be a thing.

  13. C.
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I can say that one reason I enjoy podcasts is that I do a great deal of driving and everything on the radio is shit.

    Let me recommend Stephen Fry’s Seven Deadly Sins. The recently released intro episode is fantastic. Last year’s Great Leap Years is worth a listen as well, if you love Stephen, as I am certain many readers here do.

  14. Bruce Lilly
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to take the position that it’s the folks promoting the falsehood of a “real” free will that are being anti-social, rather than the ones pointing out that free will is in fact an illusion. Whereas philosophers like to cook up fantasy scenarios, I’m going to stick to reasoned opinion and facts based on real-world observations.

    The premise that free will is real leads directly to theories of sentencing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justice#Theories_of_sentencing) involving retribution, deterrence, reparation, and denunciation. That premise, coupled with the denial of physical (including “mental”) causes of behavior, result in rehabilitation rarely being used as a primary means of addressing criminal or anti-social behavior (as distinct from a post-hoc rationalization for punitive incarceration, etc.). Retribution (a.k.a. revenge) doesn’t address or correct causes of bad behavior. The experts at the National Institute of Justice report that the deterrence theory related to punishment and based on choice (i.e. “free will”) is at best ineffective (https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/five-things-about-deterrence). Likewise, reparation and denunciation do nothing to affect or remedy the deterministic causes of bad behavior.

    Recognizing that free will is an illusion, and that therefore there is some (possibly treatable) physical cause for bad behavior leads not to revenge and punishment, but to treatment and rehabilitation, or at most incarceration (as protection for society, rather than as punishment for the offender) where rehabilitation isn’t possible.

    Consider the well-known case of Charles Joseph Whitman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Whitman), who had a brain tumor which may have led to the “many unusual and irrational thoughts” that Whitman noted in his suicide note. Unfortunately, Whitman had not had a proper diagnosis, despite previous medical and psychological issues. And there’s now no way to know for certain if there were mental issues due to his childhood environment and young adult experiences which may have contributed to his behavior (although there are notes from at least one psychiatric consultation).

    Clearly, Whitman knew about rules, laws and punishments (from earlier involvement with civilian law and Marine Corps service); they did not deter or prevent him from killing his mother, his wife, fourteen others, and wounding an additional thirty-one.

    Rather than speculate, I’ll pose a simple rhetorical question: if it had been widely understood at the time that bad behavior results from physical (and mental) causes which can possibly be identified and treated, rather than faith in “free will” as an explanation for such behavior, might Whitman have received a proper diagnosis and treatment, potentially saving seventeen lives?

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I believe the kind of ‘”real” free will’ you are talking about here is NOT the kind that Dennett and Carroll are talking about, right? No one I know argues against rehabilitation of criminals. While our host argues for criminal justice reform based on lack of free will, it doesn’t follow that those that disagree with his version of free will are against criminal justice reform.

      • Bruce Lilly
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        “we have free will so that we create civilization” coupled with reality of and talk of “prisons” (rather than hospitals or even asylums) and outright claims that stating that free will is illusory is “anti-social” sure sounds like revenge and punishment in preference to treatment and rehabilitation. And demonization rather than rational discourse.

        But it’s hard to pin down what those guys really think. Fantasy scenarios don’t help. “free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is” is uninformative and is also “just obnoxious”; don’t tell me what I think it is, if you claim to know precisely what it is, present that, clearly and unambiguously, or at least do the same for what *you* (not you Paul, Dan Dennett et. al.) think. Unless and until there is such a clear and unambiguous presentation, the best that’s possible (w/o also making the obnoxious assertion of knowing what the other person thinks) is to discuss the claims and arguments actually made.

        Talk of “puppets” is at best an odious strawman argument; it implies a puppeteer, and that’s certainly not a claim that I’m making. It would be more appropriate (and accurate from a deterministic POV) to use a complex machine as an analogy; such machines may malfunction or break due to physical (including environmental) causes, including wear and tear, improper maintenance, misuse or abuse from external sources, etc. Rational non-delusional people rarely (and never seriously) attribute agency to machines or threaten machines with punishment (fines, beatings, incarceration, lethal injection, etc.); the rational approach is to diagnose and remedy the cause of malfunction, where feasible.

        Now if the proponents of “real free will” can clearly and unambiguously explain how a complex machine can have this supposed “real free will”, and what the implications are for treatment of such machines when they malfunction, then we can have a possibly productive discussion applicable to people, other animals, and even artificial intelligence. Demonization of the scientifically demonstrable (e.g. via neurological experiments as described by Harris) position that (tentatively, as far as current evidence indicates) “free will” is an illusion, demonization based on strawman arguments in turn based on obscure fictional stories, coupled with vague non-descriptions of “free will” aren’t going to get us to a productive discussion.

        Even a serious discussion of the neuroscience would be a start. But no. At 17:08, Dennett says “That’s how the neuroscientists, they train up, categorize on this FMRI data about what’s going on in people’s heads and they discover they can make a prediction about what person’s gonna do 10 seconds later. Yeah, they can. And that shows that it’s a real pattern.” And then he immediately dismisses it with “But a lot of the patterns they find by these methods aren’t real. That is, they don’t predict the thing.” He fails to discuss the implication for “real free will” of the “real pattern” and the fact that subjects report a “decision” long after the physical neurological activity. Instead we get a digression into AI learning networks and fantasy talk about “Laplace’s Demon”, “Martians”, and baseballs. Philosophers can be infuriating.

        • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          “… if you claim to know precisely what [free will] is, present that, clearly and unambiguously”

          It’s the distinction between doing something because you want to and doing something because you are threatened by a gun to your head.

          It’s the distinction between a woman wearing a garment such as a hijab because she feels like it, and wearing it because she’ll be arrested and jailed if she doesn’t.

          Is that clear and unambiguous?

          If your reply is that this concept of doing something “of your own free will” is different from the concept of libertarian, contra-causal free will, then, yes, indeed it is.

          “Man can do as he wills, but not will what he wills” — Schopenhauer.

          The compatibilist conception of “free will” is about doing what one wills, it’s not about willing what one wills.

          • Bruce Lilly
            Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

            I’ll accept something as clear and unambiguous if it explains existing phenomena. Bonus points if it makes falsifiable predictions.

            “want to” and “feels like it” sound an awful lot like “will”, which makes for a circular definition. There’s no explanatory power for the observed neurological activity (including muscular control) that precedes a subject’s statement of decision-making.

            • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

              Presumably you are aware what “wanting to do” something feels like? What about it needs explaining?

              • Bruce Lilly
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

                For a start, explaining in what sense it’s either “free” or “will” if the feeling arrives *after* the determination has already been made in the meat computer. “Free will is an illusion” explains that perfectly in a largely deterministic world. “Free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is” explains nothing.

              • Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

                ‘“Free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is” explains nothing.’

                Of course it explains nothing by itself. I believe he’s simply saying that his version of free will has nothing to do with determinism. It’s a social construct. Of course, in a sense everything has to do with determinism, just as it has to do with atoms and forces. It’s just that referring to them to define a human social construct is simply not useful. They belong to different domains of discourse.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

                “I believe he’s simply saying that his version of free will has nothing to do with determinism. It’s a social construct“

                Is this the version that is in play in the courtroom?

              • Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I believe so. What exactly we hold people responsible for in a courtroom is something decided by society.

              • Posted January 14, 2020 at 1:55 am | Permalink

                It’s “will” in the sense that you want to do it, and “free” if no-one stops you doing it. Both concepts work fine under determinism.

          • Tim J Reichert
            Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

            “It’s the distinction between doing something because you want to and doing something because you are threatened by a gun to your head.”

            That describes free action not free will. Doing what you want is free action. Free WILL would be if you could chose what you WILL which we can’t. This is so remedial I can’t understand why compatibilists get this point so wrong.

            • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

              Your comment illustrates how much of this discussion is mere semantics. What compatibilists call “free will” is what you call “free action”.

              And no, compatibilists have not simply got it wrong, and are not simply being obtuse, since there is an equally long history of using the terms the way compatibilists use them.

              • Tim J Reichert
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

                I agree with you completely that it is a semantics issue. The question is are the incompatibilist and compatibilist semantics equally useful/helpful or is one of them more useful/helpful than the other. I believe the incompatibilist semantics are more useful and helpful to the human condition than the compatibilist semantics. I’m guessing you feel it’s the other way round.

                I think it’s actually an empirical matter which semantics choice is the more useful, and of course I think the incompatibilist semantics are empirically more useful/helpful. Meaning they will lead to the better behaviour.

            • Vaal
              Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

              Tim J Reichert

              “That describes free action not free will. Doing what you want is free action. Free WILL would be if you could chose what you WILL which we can’t. This is so remedial I can’t understand why compatibilists get this point so wrong.”

              That’s because you seem to be begging the question against compatibilism to begin with.
              It’s like saying “Without God there would be no reasons to treat one another with kindness. This is so remedial I can’t understand how atheists get it wrong.”
              Well, if you’ve simply assumed your own conclusion in there, that morality is based on a God, then you’ll get your conclusion. But that’s not terribly interesting as a response to an argument about that very conclusion!

              Similarly your claim that “we can not choose what we will” seems to just assert this in a question-begging way against a compatibilist account of having “choice” and/or flirt with special pleading.

              Remember that compatibilists, whatever their other differences, agree that we “could not do otherwise” in the sense of “under precisely the same conditions/same time.”
              Therefore compatibilism talks about what is “possible” in the way that (we would argue) humans normally infer what is “possible:” that is making inferences from previous experience over time, in which you infer possibility of X in *relevantly similar conditions.*

              To say you *could* get up right now, walk a few steps, then return to your seat if you want to is an inference built on your abilities to do so in relevantly similar situations leading up to this claim. To say *you could have* done that moments ago is making the same statement about your abilities “If you had wanted to, you could have…”

              Understood this way, “could” and “could have” are testable claims. (And since this is actually the way we mostly think about could/could have, we DO test such claims!).

              Same goes for “could I have willed to do otherwise?”

              IF that meant “could I have willed to do otherwise under precisely the same conditions/same time of the universe” the answer is “no” but that ISN’T the relevant sense of ‘could do otherwise’ compatibilism means. So it’s a non-started argument against compatibilism.

              If I have a bottle of water to my left and a bottle of coke to my right, I can explain: I *could* choose to pick up either the coke or the bottle of water. This is an account of my abilities *in situations such as this.*

              If I pick up the bottle of water and I say “I COULD HAVE picked up the coke instead if I’d wanted to” that’s the same claim. Not “with precisely the same neurons firing/same state of the universe” but “in a situation relevantly similar if I had that desire I could have picked up the other one. And it IS POSSIBLE for me to have a different desire, to CHOOSE DIFFERENTLY in such a situation.”

              So after I’d picked up the bottle of water I could demonstrate that I could change my desire, change what I choose to do, and do it, by simply picking up the coke right after. Because so little has changed of relevance in the time I’ve made my claim, that my claim remains relevant to the situation.

              This is just the standard conceptual scheme most people use most of the time when even thinking about “what I can do, what I could have done.”

              It is in fact the only thing that does, or can make sense of it. (I argue).

              So on the compatibilist understanding it certainly is possible to “choose what you will” in the sense of “being able to alter what I will/alter a desire/alter my goal” in relevant situations.

              I mentioned special pleading because it seems that, at least for sake of argument, you accepted the reasoning for “free action” but refused to accept it for a “free willed” act, on the basis such reasoning wouldn’t apply to “choosing to will differently.” But, as I’ve just explained, if it’s ok to say “I’m free to do X or Y action insofar as I can change my course of action and it is not impeded by threats” then it would seem just as logical to admit “I can change what I will to do so long as this is possible in the same way, and is not impeded by coercion.” (In other words, without threat I’m cognitively freer to alter my desire between picking up the coke or water, but if you threatened to shoot me if I pick up the coke, it certainly would be much harder to muster the will/desire to pick up the coke. I’d rather want to avoid doing so due to the threat!”

              There are other arguments for how we can “will what we will” in some cases, which I won’t regurgitate here. (BTW, it’s often not seen as necessary on a compatibilist case to be able to will what we will, just that we can do what we will. But I’m pointing out I find the “we can’t choose what we will” to be a problematic argument, especially when hard incompatibilists assume it against compatibilists).

          • YF
            Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

            Well put Coel. When incompatibilists argue against compatibilism they tend to overlook the important and meaningful sense of ‘free’ = ‘voluntary’, which they themselves routinely use in everyday life. E.g., Did you give your money away voluntarily or against your will?

            No one who is a naturalist disputes that our actions and choices arise from the brain, which operates in accordance with the laws of physics.

        • Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          The only problem with a machine having free will is that free will is a social construct. If we allowed a machine to participate fully in society then we can declare that it has free will, allow it to sign contracts, tell it has to follow rules and convict it if it chooses not to follow them.

          I think Dennett is taking issue with some interpretations of the Libet experiments. They and many other experiments are peering into the brain’s decision making process. If one is biased towards thinking there’s woo involved in free will or consciousness, you can interpret these results in all kinds of goofy ways.

          • Bruce Lilly
            Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            To the very point of the discussion, I don’t think that it’s valid (especially with no explanatory mechanism) to suppose that a machine *can* “choose” whether or not to do something.

            I suppose it’s possible to incorporate random elements into a machine’s functionality (e.g. a slot machine); but I doubt that’s a realistic analogy to the way normal human (or other animal) brains function. Nor would it be accurate to state that such a machine “chooses” to do anything.

            It may be possible to program a machine to simulate in broad terms what we know about human brain function to some extent; a fast but inaccurate decision-making mechanism (like the amygdala) and a slower, more logical mechanism (like the frontal lobes). One could conceivably program the machine such that some stimuli disable the logical part (“amygdala hijack”). That could be fully deterministic, and there’s no reason to say that such a machine “chooses” to do anything (other than as a crude inaccurate way of speaking about such a machine in non-technical terms to a non-technical person). Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that it would be a good idea to program a machine quite that way.

            Many people have experienced an irritable colleague or co-worker after that person has had a spousal argument, an exasperating commute, etc. I would say that that’s simply a person reacting to those stimuli, possibly also affected by chemical factors (an excess of caffeine consumption perhaps), and so on. I cannot imagine anyone seriously thinking that such a person deliberately chooses to be irritable (or not) completely independent of those factors by some sort of magical “free will”.

            • Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

              “I don’t think that it’s valid (especially with no explanatory mechanism) to suppose that a machine *can* “choose” whether or not to do something.”

              A thermostat makes a decision based on input and its internal state and “decides” to turn on the heat. The difference between a thermostat and a human is simply complexity and scale, both of internal structure and behavior. We can think of a thermostat, or today’s primitive AI systems, as too weak to hold responsible for their actions. When a thermostat malfunctions, it does no good to punish it or tell it to do better next time. If it helped, we would tell Siri to make better judgements. Someday she’ll do more than just listen.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                I tell Siri that all the time. For all the good it does me.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

                I once got really mad at my Echo Dot & I smacked it one against my desk and told it that it was poorly designed and the engineers should be fired for making such a poorly designed device. It turned out it was also my fault in the end and that it was the technical writers that should have been chastised. I felt a little bad after but I hope Amazon analyzed my angry rant and got a good laugh out of it.

              • Bruce Lilly
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                I’m old enough to know first-hand about thermostats consisting of a bimetal strip coil and a mercury switch. And experienced enough to know quite a bit about electronic implementations involving semiconductor sensors and software running on a rudimentary computer.

                To say that such a machine decides to do anything is simply wrong, even as a non-technical explanation for a non-technical audience. Saying that it responds in a deterministic manner to input stimuli and possibly some internal stored state, even some memory, would be reasonably accurate.

                Agreed that humans are different in complexity and scale, but without adequate relevant, credible, verifiable, publicly-accessible evidence, I won’t accept that there’s some kind of “ghost in the machine” that’s fundamentally different from what any machine — whether made of meat, silicon, or anything else — does. I’m willing to tentatively accept the hypothesis that consciousness is an emergent property of sufficiently complex machines with certain characteristics, and that free will is an illusion that arises somehow from consciousness. That is consistent with experimental observations. It is falsifiable, e.g. by demonstrating consciousness or “real free will” in something simple like a rock (but that was a discussion from another day).

                Punishing machines of course does no good; there’s considerable evidence that the same applies to people. In both cases diagnosing and treating underlying deficiencies seems to be the most rational (and humane, in the case of people and other sentient beings) approach.

                As for Siri, my limited experience in observing those who use it is that the most frequent question seems to be “ARE YOU STUPID?”, usually shouted at high volume. I can’t recall ever hearing an answer, though. The only query I ever asked someone to relay was “Tell me about egg freckles”, and that didn’t produce a useful reply either (Google will yield a useful result, and it’s relevant).

              • Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

                You seem to say everything that I agree with but, without explanation, you refuse to allow that machines can make decisions. Are you talking about existing machines or future machines? If you mean all machines regardless then I don’t understand your reasoning.

                Punishing a sufficiently sophisticated machine for its past behavior could certainly change its future behavior. It would be possible for Apple to program Siri to change its behavior based on what its owners say to it. It would be surprising if Siri didn’t already had that functionality. What the machine considers punishment is in the eye of its programmers. Same with humans, if we consider evolution as the programmer.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted January 14, 2020 at 1:21 am | Permalink

                “egg freckles”

                I looked it up – it is important to know this!

              • Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:14 pm | Permalink


                When I tell Siri that, she tells me she has found twelve Starbucks near me. 😀

              • GBJames
                Posted January 14, 2020 at 6:56 am | Permalink

                @Bruce: Siri responds to your question with “That’s not nice.” I just asked. Now I feel bad.

              • Posted January 14, 2020 at 9:38 am | Permalink

                I’m sure you only have to ask a couple more well-chosen questions in order to dissolve your anthropomorphic vision but it will get harder and harder as time passes.

    • KD
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      The link you link to does not support the assertions you make. It indicates that there are many ways to rationally deter crime, only that long sentences and the death penalty don’t seem to have much benefit.

      You also leave out incapacitation, and given that 80% of offenses are probably committed by 20% of the people, it may make sense to incapacitate the 20%, even if it doesn’t have much deterrence effect.

      The reality is that the criminal justice system exists primarily to protect criminals from citizens. If you stopped punishing offenders, it would be a short bee-line to the return of lynch mobs and vigilantes, and ultimately, if the government continued to dawdle, as power consolidated, the emergence of social control by non-state actors (think Hezbollah). No thank you.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        “The reality is that the criminal justice system exists primarily to protect criminals from citizens.”

        I like that.

        • KD
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          Not hard to imagine what would happen to one of these school shooters if you turned them over to a mob, is it?

          • Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

            Not hard to imagine at all. I was agreeing with you. “Primarily” is a bit strong but I took that as artful exaggeration.

      • Bruce Lilly
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        The points are that neither punishment nor severity of punishment are effective deterrents.

      • Bruce Lilly
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        On separate issues: I’m pretty sure that I mentioned incarceration for incapacitation (as distinct from punishment) and specifically as protection for society from offenders.

        There are alternatives to punishment; regarding Hezbollah et al., Sudis have found deprogramming (re-education) to be effective, and it’s certainly less barbaric than flogging or beheading.

        • Bruce Lilly
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink


  15. Lswq
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    A common theme seems to be ” derives its value from . So now that is in doubt everyone has to cringe and pretend to believe in or they won’t value anymore and all will be lost.” (Cf. Ken Ham’s infamous diorama of a wrecking ball marked “millions of years” smashing into religion and destroying everything good and decent people hold dear.) Surely there couldn’t be other lines of reasoning suggesting that really is something we should be concerned about and it’s really our theory about why it’s valuable that ought to be rendered as suspect.

    I think of ideas like this as being like the exploding dye-packs stores use to stop shoplifters. Ideas that are wrong but basically harmless when taken in combination with some other idea that is itself also wrong, but very harmful in the absence of that other idea.

    Now of course you may find that second idea harmful in itself, and attempt to debunk it, but that’s when the dye pack blows up in your face.

  16. Lsqw
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    A common theme seems to be “<real thing> derives its value from <imaginary thing>. So now that is in doubt everyone has to cringe and pretend to believe in <imaginary thing> or they won’t value <real thing> anymore and all will be lost.” (Cf. Ken Ham’s infamous diorama of a wrecking ball marked “millions of years” smashing into religion and destroying everything good and decent people hold dear.) Surely there couldn’t be other lines of reasoning suggesting that really is something we should be concerned about and it’s really our theory about why it’s valuable that ought to be rendered as suspect.

    I think of ideas like this as being like the exploding dye-packs stores use to stop shoplifters. Ideas that are wrong but basically harmless when taken in combination with some other idea that is itself also wrong, but very harmful in the absence of that other idea.

    Now of course you may find that second idea harmful in itself, and attempt to debunk it, but that’s when the dye pack blows up in your face.

    • Lswq
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      argh, “So now that <imaginary thing> is in doubt…”

  17. Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    In all of this, there is one point that matters most: We must protect ourselves from dangerous persons, i.e., those who pose an unreasonable risks, but we do not have to torment them—i.e., inflict human misery beyond the absolute needs of public safety.

    And, I would add, to torment people for their acts is morally wrong if some version of determinism is true. (My personal preference would be that “neural determinism,” at the very least, is true, viz. that all bodily movements and, hence, behavior, are caused solely by neuronal activity that occurs in accordance with physical laws).

    It is pure conjecture to say that people would behave badly if they fully understood the “truth” of free will and determinism. But it is demonstrable fact that people inflict a lot of misery on others, many of them “collateral damage,” based on belief in free will. Dennett’s little thought experiment is way off the mark: It’s certainly not a part of determinism that the laws of physics “won’t let [us] do bad stuff,” and no one suggests telling people that it is. On the contrary, if determinism is true and if people actually learn the way we think they do, it is all the more efficacious and, therefore, essential to educate (or “train”) people on the difference between right and wrong and on the importance of “choosing” (weighing) wisely.

    Determinism does not mean people are just “puppets.” We are beings that can enjoy life immensely or suffer hardships enormously, depending on how we and others behave. This is a hugely important fact. There is nothing about determinism that counsels against doing all that we can to support the most satisfying and rewarding lives possible for every human being (even if we are motivated to do so entirely in accordance with the laws of physics).

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      “Dennett’s little thought experiment is way off the mark”

      You are completely misunderstanding the thought experiment. It is not saying that if people accept determinism then bad things will happen.

      It is saying that if people came to believe that they are not responsible for their actions, that they are not moral agents, and that if they do bad things then it’s not their fault, that bad things would happen.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Oh, well then I guess I’m about the worst criminal there is. Right? And so is Alex Rosenberg, and Sam Harris, and all others of our ilk.

        There’s not a shred of evidence for the claim that accepting determinism turns you into a bad person.

        • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          “Oh, well then I guess I’m about the worst criminal there is. Right?”

          Not at all, because you agree that we need to hold people responsible for their actions (in the sense of having legal sanctions for criminal acts).

          “There’s not a shred of evidence for the claim that accepting determinism turns you into a bad person.”

          Agreed, and no-one is making that claim (Dennett is a determinist, so am I). The thing that would turn people into bad people is the doctrine: “you are not responsible for your actions, if you do something bad, such as rape someone, then it’s not your fault, so we won’t blame you and we won’t sanction you”.

          And of course you are not saying that. (The entire argument is different sides talking past each other while actually being agreed, just because they use different concepts in different ways.)

          • Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

            NOBODY is saying that! So who is Dennett attacking???

            • Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

              Dennett misinterprets and so attacks your position; you misinterpret and so attack Dennett’s position.

              For example you say we’re not “morally responsible”, because to you “moral” responsibility necessarily involves dualistic woo. But Dennett doesn’t connote it that way, to him “moral responsibility” is merely what *you* mean by holding someone “responsible” and deterring acts by legal sanctions.

              So Dennett interprets you as wanting to abandon that latter concept, when the truth is that both of you emphasize that that is necessary for society to function.

              You then misinterpret Dennett as making a “little people” argument that people need a dualistic-woo notion of “moral responsibility” (even though it is false), whereas actually all he’s saying is that society needs the concept of holding people responsible for acts, on which you’re both agreed.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                This is why free will is a distracting argument and we should instead talk about what we already all agree on which is determinism.

              • Posted January 14, 2020 at 1:59 am | Permalink

                Agreed; this discussion never gets beyond the fact that different sides mean different things by “free will”, and “choose” and “moral responsibility”.

        • Bruce Lilly
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

          Jerry writes: “There’s not a shred of evidence for the claim that accepting determinism turns you into a bad person.”

          There’s a certain parallel between the “determinism turns you into a bad person” and the oft-heard theistic claim that one cannot be moral without a cosmic legislator (meaning a deity, usually a very specific one). The claim is that without X, people will turn into Edward Hyde-like thieving, raping, murdering monsters; X is either a deity or “free will”. Given the tie between Abrahamic theology and “free will”, that’s not entirely unexpected.

          So I wondered: what about other religions and cultures? A visit to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page on free will (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill) provided no direct information, but references to additional resources: one for Chinese perspectives (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317178911_Chinese_Perspectives_on_Free_Will) and one for Indian philosophy (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264757446_Free_will_and_Indian_philosophy). The short answers are that there’s no comparable debate about free will in Chinese or Indian thought.

          My impression then, is that the urge to declare “real free will” appears to be intimately related primarily to Abrahamic theistic belief (or perhaps “belief in belief” in Dennett’s case). Those of us who don’t have a dog (or its ananym) in the fight don’t seem to have that urge.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Voltaire said it nicely, that he did not believe in god, but if a belief in god stopped just one person from robbing him, then he would promote god.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I think you can argue that people treat others better when they feel they could not have done otherwise, ie: they understand the determinism of it all, even if they aren’t labelling something “deterministic” or understand what “determinism” is. The example I get is our opinion, as a society, about how we treat mentally ill people. It used to be that they were laughed at up till fairly recently and tortured not long ago. Once we understood that mental illness was a physical issue with the brain that the person could not choose to stop, our treatment of the mentally ill changed. A specific example is how we treat those with depression. 30 years ago, when I was clinically depressed, I hid that from everyone except close friends and family because the stigma was so big that I knew people would openly mock me and I’d get a reputation as an imbecile who chose to be sad instead of “snapping out of it”. Later, there were many campaigns that explained to the public that depression was a physical issue no different than being diabetic and that one wouldn’t mock and mistreat a person for being diabetic because a depressed person could no more “snap out of” depression as a diabetic could “snap out of” a sugar issue. People came around when they understood the person could not have willed away depression.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        The change in how we treat mentally ill people has nothing to do with any kind of belief in determinism. Where’s your data? It’s simply cultural evolution. As Pinker points out, we treat all kinds of people and animals better on average as time has passed. If anything, our better treatment of the mentally ill comes directly from biological understanding. We no longer attribute their behavior to bad spirits or possession but actively try to fix the real cause of their problems. We understand why they are the way they are and know that it had nothing to do with not going to church. for example.

        • GBJames
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          “Where’s your data?”

          I think those of us who take Diana’s point of view, and that of PCC[e] and can legitimately answer from personal experience. I know that I find myself more tolerant of the foibles of others when I’m aware that they’re just victims of the universe, as am I. It would take something more rigorous, of course, to answer the question scientifically. But it could be done, I think.

          As for “nothing to do with any kind of belief in determinism”, I think you’re wrong. Recognizing that mentally ill people are victims of disease/disorders very much has led to better treatment. And saying “simply cultural evolution” adds nothing in explanation of the process. It simply gives the process a name.

          • Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

            “I find myself more tolerant of the foibles of others when I’m aware that they’re just victims of the universe”

            Does that require a belief in a determinism? We are all “just victims of the universe” even if determinism is false. Similarly for recognizing mental illness. It’s not determinism but understand of the scientific basis for these problems. I doubt many scientists working on these problems would say their belief in determinism is crucial to their work.

            • GBJames
              Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

              “Does it require?” is the wrong question. It is a consequence of determinism. There may be others.

              I’d put the question back to you: If people report this consequence from their personal experience, do you not think there is merit in seeing if it is a general phenomenon? What value is there in dismissing the thought, as you seem to want to do?

              • Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                How is asking to see the data dismissing the thought? I am skeptical of it though. If you had data or a strong argument for your conclusion, I would be interested in them.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                Because, Paul, instead of acknowledging that reports of consequence X exist and might point to a broader phenomenon, you went to “Does it require?” (which nobody has asserted). Your response simply discredits some evidence that is easy to hand. That’s dismissive.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          I think I explained myself quite clearly – the change happened almost overnight once depression was explained as a physical phenomenon and likened to any other disease. It wasn’t a progression of treating people over time better in general. It was a sea change not something that evolved over centuries as Pinker’s examples describe. And I specifically said it wasn’t a “belief in determinism” but an understanding of the phenomenon from a deterministic perspective. GBJames’s reply is one I completely agree with.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      “And, I would add, to torment people for their acts is morally wrong if some version of determinism is true.”

      You can leave off “if some version of determinism is true”, in my opinion. Torture is just plain wrong, regardless.

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

        I understand there to be a difference between “torment” and “torture” (which are, after all, two different words). Torturers always torment their victims but tormenters do not always torture. A person may live a tormented life even if never literally tortured.

        I would agree, however, that tormenting others is wrong whether or not determinism is true. But it is worth stressing that the truth of determination would seem to rule out the widely-shared belief that some persons, due to their free-will choices, “deserve” suffering and, hence, punishment in return.

  18. Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Our human brains are really good at mostly memory stuff, which itself is supposedly constantly remade. So go with memory to decently explain free will. Throw in a few comments by respected minds like Hume … ‘it is more likely that we make up stuff’, Feynman … ‘even philosophy is just wishful thinking’ or Wittgenstein … ‘philosophy is just playing with definitions’ which is playing with our memory of whatever language we have made up. I can get up or stay at the computer with my ‘free will’, whatever my brain and memory wants to make of it … so why belabor this stuff? It only becomes serious when supposed great minds like Descartes or Kant pander to others who WANT to keep the idea of a soul, god, purpose and heaven/hell … which is only what most humans WANT.

  19. Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    The consensus amongst my colleagues (faculty and my fellow graduate students alike) that FW was just what it is inside us that allows us to be held morally responsible. This may well be, as Jerry holds and I do sometimes now : nothing at all! Dennett’s _Elbow Room_ was on our curriculum as a prereq, so he was in that mix into that precisifcation. This was 20 years ago! Alas, things have not gone much further … though there are a *few* people who agree with Jerry and the one version of me in the literature …

    Dennett’s argument always struck me as exactly parallel to the one he rebuts about qualia, consciousness, etc. with great effect and gusto elsewhere. I do not understand why he does not see it. This is dismaying to me – Dennett has been a very strong influence on my work, and continues to be, even if I am no longer doing much professional philosophy. I think he would be amazed about how much goes into IT security, though, and I use it here, too – in the background, for I do not want to explain the obscure by the more obscure, at least for others.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Dennett’s argument always struck me as exactly parallel to the one he rebuts about qualia, consciousness, etc. with great effect and gusto elsewhere. I do not understand why he does not see it.

      Listening to this podcast, this jumped out at me as well. I need to relisten, review other materials and think some more about it. I may have misunderstood.

  20. KD
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Not sure that “free will” is all that important. Many ancient societies believed that everything was destined, and employed oracles and divination to predict events, because everything was determined.

    Christianity flirted heavily with free will, in part to attack divination and necromancy, but not so much with Islam. I suppose there is also the free will theodicy, but I’m not sure anyone really buys it.

    If you dump free will, I wonder if guilt or innocence will go along with it (as they are both connected to whether X really did it or not). Obviously, if you just round up and imprison undesirables, its going to have a deterrence effect, and be more efficient than conducting trials and hiring forensic psychologists.

  21. sted24
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    “As I’ve said before, yes we are responsible for our decisions, but only in the sense that society must hold us accountable if society is to run smoothly. We are not, however, morally responsible for our decisions, as that implies libertarian free will.”

    So moral accountability doesn’t exist?

    To immediately go Full Godwin: Does this mean that while Hitler was indeed responsible for the Holocaust (and thus accountable for it), he was not *morally* responsible for it?

    Put in other language: He had agency in the Holocaust, but was not–morally–a Bad Man?

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      I’ve said this over and over again, and in this post, too, did you read it?

      No, Hitler did not have free will to do what he did; he could not have done otherwise. He was a bad man, and also “immoral” in the sense that society uses the word, but he was not morally responsible for what he did. He was responsible for what he did and needed to be punished for deterrence, keeping him away from society, and whatever help he could get, though he was clearly beyond rehabilitation.

      Why are you so wedded to the idea that he was MORALLY responsible. Do you think that at each juncture of his life, Hitler could have decided to behave differently from what he did? Neither Dennett nor Carroll believe that.

      • KD
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        What is the difference between moral and legal responsibility?

        If you do something immoral, but not illegal, good people shun you, talk about you negatively behind your back, you make lose out on job opportunities, or get fired or whatever.

        If you do something illegal, it goes down on your permanent record, maybe you go to jail or prison, or you have to jump through hoops to show you are rehabilitated. You may have to deal with informal sanctions as well.

        One is informal, the other is formal, otherwise they are the same.

        Why not informally sanction breakers of informal social rules? Who cares if they are free or not in some metaphysical sense, they are coloring outside of the lines. Why does it change suddenly because a legislature passes a statute?

        • KD
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          Its clear that you cannot effectively create rational sanctions to encourage or deter involuntary human behavior, while at the same time, you can effectively create rational sanctions or rewards to encourage or deter voluntary human behavior.

          Thus, systems of incentives for good behaviors and punishments for bad behaviors are sure to continue in time, until you come up with better methods of behavioral modification.

          As practical matter, this will remain true whatever metaphysical belief you have regarding free will. I don’t see much difference between moral and immoral responsibility.

          Say Hitler couldn’t have done other than he did. Doesn’t that just make him even more of a pecker?

          • KD
            Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

            Should be moral or legal responsibility.

      • sted24
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        “I’ve said this over and over again, and in this post, too, did you read it?”

        The available evidence suggests that I did read this post. I quoted it. On the wider point of ‘over again’, it is true I may not have read all your posts, ever.

        Seeking clarification, here was my question: “So moral accountability doesn’t exist?” And you have answered it (if I understand you correctly): No.

        But I still fail to understand this: “He [Hitler] was a bad man, and also “immoral” in the sense that society uses the word, but he was not morally responsible for what he did.

        Sure I can follow the arguments about free will, but in what sense was Hitler “a bad man”, if not in a moral sense?

        Isn’t “a bad man” a moral judgement?

      • Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        Read ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ to realize that Hitler just used what was in many German’s minds already, that the Holocaust victims were somehow evil. For how that happened, search out the reasons from 500 years of Luther, who got his reasons from 1000 years St John in the Bible, which many humans assume is true, etc. Then all this stuff is put into our brains as memory, and then we have free will?

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Hitler was a product of his environment.

      If anyone says Hitler morally responsible, then society loses. We are doomed to repeat creating more Hitlers. If we concede as a species that we made Hitler, then we can figure out ways to prevent future Hitlers.

      There should be no moral responsibility. It takes away our responsibility to understand how to avoid future problems.

  22. Posted January 13, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    We need to fix the system of judgment and punishment, as Prof. CCE says. I believe we are.

    Evidence suggests that criminal and justice systems are slowing but steadfastly implementing strategies that provide both better judgement and punishment.

    I’ve worked with a lot of religious scientists. They don’t bring their religion to the lab. Likewise, a lot of people believe in free will, but mostly, as a society, we implementing solutions informed by a deterministic universe.

  23. Roo
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d be curious to know if there are differences in the perception of free will in cultures where responsibility is not always attributed to individual people (for example, societies where a family member’s misdeed causes the entire family to be punished and thought of as ‘guilty’.) Or perhaps not, maybe the same mechanisms that allow us to easily see a mass of neurobiological processes as one concrete person transfer to groups, so that they are similarly conceived of as a single entity.

    As I usually say on this topic, I am convinced that free will does not actually exist but agnostic about the utility of acting as if it exists. I’m not sure what it is analogous to. Perhaps it is like saying Santa Claus exists. Or, perhaps it is like saying money exists. The former we would consider an outright falsehood; the latter we would generally claim has a sort of intersubjective ‘existence’ that is worth preserving.

  24. Tim J Reichert
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I know for a fact that I have been treating people better since discovering the truth about how determined we are, and I am no more vulnerable to bad actors for it.

    I treat everyone like a bear now. If a bear killed my brother, I would take all necessary steps to stop that bear from harming others and yet I would have no hatred towards the bear and no desire to do the bear harm. The bear was doing what bears do. Hating or wanting to teach that bear a lesson it won’t soon forget does not enter my mind, and if such thoughts do enter my mind when it’s a human, they quickly dissolve as I apply determinism to the situation.

    I can protect myself and others from the bear without holding the bear morally responsible. Same same for humans who do harm.

    I am also more humble since discovering the truth about determinism. I no longer take great pride in my talents and intellect but instead I am just grateful for having them them, and sympathetic towards those who don’t have them.

    I think this idea that people will lose their civic responsibility if they learn how determined we are is about as backwards as an idea can get. It seems ignorant of what it is that makes humans do good and bad things. From what I can tell, belief in free will causes more bad behaviour than belief in determinism.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      “I think this idea that people will lose their civic responsibility if they learn how determined we are is about as backwards as an idea can get.”

      Nobody has suggested that would happen. That is not what Dennett says in the podcast.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      “From what I can tell, belief in free will causes more bad behaviour than belief in determinism.”

      Only if you believe in “magic” free will. The kind of free will I believe in maximizes personal responsibility for my actions. Deterministic free will blames my bad actions on physics. Magic free will blames it on magic, god, or whatever. Perhaps I will start calling my kind of free will “social free will” as its source is society and its behavioral norms.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Those are good points and the part about being lucky to have talents is important too. People attribute far too much to individual effort than they do luck for where they are. I consider myself lucky for many reasons knowing that an exact copy of me may have faired worse or better depending on a lot of other circumstances.

  25. Servatius
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I am wondering if their is a difference between people who read to inform themselves over people who get their information from video or audio sources

  26. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    and the compatibilist definitions are incompatible with each other!

    I’m not sure why we should consider this a problem.

    Every branch of science goes through an early phase where we don’t know much and there’s room for a variety of competing theories. These theories can’t all be correct, but we don’t on that basis declare the whole field invalid. On the contrary, competing, mutually incompatible theories are usually regarded as a good thing, since they point the way toward empirically resolving their differences.

    The emergence of life from prebiotic chemistry is one area that’s currently in this stage, and few scientists would argue that we should give up on it simply because there’s no consensus yet.

    Cognitive science is another; there are many open questions about how mental states such as plans and intentions get translated into behavior, and how doing so confers a sense of agency, and it’s only reasonable at this early stage that there should be many ideas about how best to address those questions. That’s a feature, not a bug.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      This is not science, or even cognitive science. It is semantics. There is no one “correct: definition of free will that empirical work will settle on. That’s why this is a semantic squabble and not a scientific one

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 14, 2020 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        There are, presumably, objective facts (even if we don’t yet know them all) about what sort of brain processes cause us to experience the sense of agency that we label “free will”. Empirical work can discover those facts, and once it does, we can reasonably claim to have arrived at a correct, purely materialist definition of free will as the subjective correlate of those processes.

        In the meantime, theorists are free to speculate about what those facts might be, and propose ways to find out. I see nothing wrong with that.

    Posted January 13, 2020 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    If determinism is true, and I believe it is, then there’s a kind of tragic irony in attempting to persuade others on the matter this way or that. Actually, there’s not even irony, tragic or otherwise. Nor even folly. Things were as they were, are as they are, and will be as they will be—irrespective of any kind of leverage that the production and comprehension of human Reasons is often alleged to provide.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Kevin Henderson disagrees in his comment above. I agree with him, our criminal justice system, and other systems and institutions are and have been changing as we learn more about human behavior.

  28. aljones909
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    A poll of philosophers (extracting those specialising in Phil. of Religion from the polled group seems to make little difference)

    Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

    compatibilism 550/931 59.1%

    libertarianism 128/931 13.7%

    no free will 114/931 12.2%

    Other 139/931 14.9%

  29. Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with Jerry’s claim that libertarian free will is baked into our legal system. Here are some interesting passages in Wikipedia’s article on “Irrestible impulse” in the law:

    The policeman at the elbow test is a test used by some courts to determine whether the defendant was insane when they committed a crime. It is a variant of the M’Naghten Rules that addresses the situation in which the defendant knew that what they were going to do was wrong, but had no ability to restrain themself from doing it. The test asks whether they would have done what they did even if a police officer was standing at their elbow, hence its name.

    So: not asking about what would happen in a universe with the exact same conditions down to the microscopic detail. But rather, asking about a case where the reason not to do something would be vividly clear to anyone in their right mind.

    And this:

    In English Law the concept of “irresistible impulse” was developed in the 1960 case R v. Byrne. The appellant (described as a violent sexual psychopath) strangled then mutilated a young woman, it was alleged that Byrne suffered from violent and perverted sexual desires which he found impossible to control. Lord Parker C.J. broadened the definition of “abnormality of mind” to include those lacking “the ability to exercise will-power to control acts in accordance with [their] rational judgment”.

    Rational judgment sounds exactly like what the policeman-at-the-elbow test is getting at. And again, nothing at all like libertarian free will philosophy.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      Umm. . I don’t think you understand the free-willism at play here. The reason these people are deemed to be less guilty (or not guilty) is because they have conditions in which their mentation did not allow them to have chosen otherwise. That’s the same as “not guilty by reason of insanity” in principle. If you are deemed to have free will when you do a bad act, as when you could reason and decide not to transgress when, say, a policeman is around, then you are more guilty.

      Do you understand that the association of guilt with the assumed ability to reason and thus to have done otherwise is, in fact, the very notion of free will baked into our legal system? And it’s baked in every time the law states that if you had a defective mind and couldn’t have done otherwise, you are less guilty than those who had a “reasoning” mind and could have chosen otherwise. My contention is that in an important way there is no difference in the causation of these cases: in both cases the laws of physics cannot be overturned by will.

      But of course how you treat the miscreant in these cases will differ, as I’ve said a gazillion times.

      • Vaal
        Posted January 13, 2020 at 11:42 pm | Permalink


        “Do you understand that the association of guilt with the assumed ability to reason and thus to have done otherwise is, in fact, the very notion of free will baked into our legal system?”

        But (I would argue) not simply because magic thinking is baked in, but because the concept of “could have done otherwise” is an unavoidable conceptual scheme in law as elsewhere.

        “But of course how you treat the miscreant in these cases will differ, as I’ve said a gazillion times.”

        On the same page there! But there will be many cases where you can not *justify* or make sense of judging anyone a “miscreant” without the assumption “he/she could have done otherwise.”

        Jerry, I presume you agree a Catholic Bishop who knew of the presence of an active child abuser in his parish, but who did nothing in his power to stop the abuse, would merit opprobrium. These Bishops would be “miscreants.”

        But the only rational for judging a Bishop that way is on the premise “He could have done otherwise.” In other words: The Bishop had the knowledge of the abuse, and the power to stop it IF HE WANTED TO. Yet he chose not to. What marks the Bishop out as a miscreant is the power to have stopped the abuse, but having chosen not to do. It’s the “could have done otherwise” aspect, his power to have stopped the abuse if he chose to, that gives us insight in to his thinking and tells us what type of person we are dealing with.

        If the Bishop did not have the power to stop the abuse EVEN IF HE WANTED TO, then how would it make sense to judge the Bishop a miscreant? It would be like blaming the local butcher, or florist, for not stopping the abuse. The reason we don’t blame them is because they, unlike the Bishop, didn’t have the knowledge and power to have stopped the abuse.

        This is entirely independent of spooky free will of the type you are thinking. It’s the “could do otherwise” that compatibilists keep pointing out makes sense and that we should not/can not abandon.

        Further, even the notion of deterrence presumes that people can “do otherwise” (in the compatibilist sense). Otherwise…what rational could there be in trying to deter people if they “can’t do otherwise?”

        “My contention is that in an important way there is no difference in the causation of these cases: in both cases the laws of physics cannot be overturned by will.”

        Even if that claim dispenses with non-material concepts, it’s hard to see that this does more work than saying “it’s my contention that everything is made of matter and energy obeying the laws of physics.”
        Sure. But pointing to something fundamental everything shares doesn’t do the work of navigating the important differences.

        There are real-world differences in constraints put on people’s competency, abilities to act, etc, that we have to recognize and terms like “free” and “not free,” and “could do” could not have done” do work in helping identify these differences.

        Also: I believe I understand your position on people not being held morally responsible for their actions, after the fact. But I’m unclear on your position about normative morality. Is there “good” and “bad?” Things we “ought” to do vs “ought not” do? (It seems so, as you regularly judge people, e.g. “miscreants.”) Saying someone “should do Y” or “ought not do Z” seems to be explicable only insofar as he “could do otherwise.” (You don’t “recommend” that someone “obey the laws of physics.” We only intelligible talk about “should/ought” if there is an actual “choice” available between alternative actions).

        But, if I “should” return your wallet if I see you drop it rather than take your money, it makes sense to say “I should HAVE” returned your wallet rather than kept your money. And that seems a perfectly valid sense in pointing out someone having been responsible for “not acting morally” – i.e. their moral responsibility.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      That’s great. I’d never heard of this policeman-at-the-elbow test. Thanks.

  30. Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Interesting discussion, but I imagine no minds were changed. I remain a “free will agnostic”. My sense of having free will is sufficiently palpable to me that I will need strong arguments in order for me to tip into the “no free will” camp. The determinism ergo “no free will” argument won’t do. Determinism (or so-called ‘adequate determinism’) is a given. Everything we experience including subjective phenomena must be consistent with determinism.

    BTW, I repeat my objection to describing phenomena we don’t fully understand as “illusions.” A true illusion can be demonstrated to be an illusion. When someone proves to me free will is an illusion, I will reconsider.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      I agree 100% with you on the use of “illusion” with respect to free will and consciousness. The problem is that it is used sometime to refer to something that doesn’t really exist at all and other times to something that exists but we don’t see it as it really is. I believe that philosophers use it in this second sense but many hear it in the first.

      For free will, they are saying that our sense of agency appears to us as a mental construct produced by our brains. The way it feels to us to make a decision leads some to think that it arises instantaneously as some kind of spark. One thing the Libet experiments show is that our brains take time to make decisions and that they are made before we are conscious of them. This shouldn’t be surprising, of course, but it evidently is to some.

  31. Vita206
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Every time this topic comes up I’m left wondering about several issues:

    1) How does an individual go about everyday life engaging activities, options and encounters that likewise engage awareness, reflection, and response?

    2) Is the “I,” the “You,” the “They” an outcome of cultural and/or neurological evolution?

    3) Above all, how is change created? WEIT addresses social, political, scientific and cultural issues that the reader encounters and it’s assumed that the reader can have a “make a difference” response. What creates that response?

    I think we need a new set of terms to discuss what it means to be human? I don’t think the debate is moving us forward and the heat is simply increasing. It seems very much a circular discussion. That may be a sign that a new set of terminology and concepts are needed.

  32. Posted January 13, 2020 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    “The problem is that it is used (sometimes used to) refer to something that doesn’t really exist at all and other times to something that exists but we don’t see it as it really is. I believe that philosophers use it in this second sense but many hear it in the first.”

    If someone claims the second sense they can demonstrate it. In the Muller-Lyman illusion, the can instruct me to take out a ruler and measure. If it is used for the checkerboard illusion, they can tell me to cut out a square and make it adjacent. Case closed. It is the first I want proof of. This is what some claim about free will. If they cannot so demonstrate, I am entitled to apply Hitchens’ razor.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      Meant as a comment to Paul Topping.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      I agree that those philosophers who use “illusion” do not seem to explain their use of the term at all. I have not read anything where that parallels my two kinds of illusion explanation and I have no idea whether they would agree with it. It is merely my own analysis and attempt to fill their explanatory gaps.

  33. eric
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    What does it mean, though, to be “in control”?

    Here’s an idea. Being “in control” means two criteria attain:

    1. Your brain, and particularly your forebrain, is working well within specs. I.e., there is no unusual chemical imbalance (drugs, alcohol), physical trauma (knocked on the head recently), or other influence that renders your forebrain able to perform it’s regular function (haven’t slept for 48 hrs, etc.).
    1a. Admittedly, this criteria is hard to measure accurately. However, I’d say that this criteria is pretty easy to estimate, because society already has a pretty good list of things that (we expect) prevent the brain from operating as it should.
    1b. This criteria also fits well with current laws about kids and their legal culpability. Their forebrains aren’t fully developed, so it literally can’t be operating ‘within spec’. Thus, 1 justifies lesser punishments for kids, because they are recognizably less ‘in control’ of themselves than most adults.

    2. There is no external influence, stimuli, or circumstance that creates a massive, overriding risk or threat of punishment that you can do nothing about. Someone’s holding a gun to your kid’s head. Most forms of blackmail or what the legal system considers “coercion”.
    2a. As with #1, you can’t really measure whether this is actually going on inside someone’s head. But also like #1, I think society already has a pretty good estimated list of what counts.

    So if you have #1 and #2, you’re in control. If you’re lacking one or both, you’re not in (full) control.

    • Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Psychologists used to say that what you described means the ego is in control. That meant he was sane and held liable for the behavior. And capable of learning (from punishment) and changing future behavior.
      Even without free will, sane people, as described above, can learn (from punishment or reward) snd future behavior will change.
      People who cannot learn are still different from those who can’t and will still be treated differently, even if there is no longer belief in free will.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 14, 2020 at 6:59 am | Permalink

        Planaria are capable of learning from rewards and punishment. Do they have free will?

    • GBJames
      Posted January 14, 2020 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Of course, there’s no “spec”. There’s nothing but a fuzzy collection of ever-changing expectations floating around the culture, among them the ideas of free will, determinism, etc. The difference between “he had a gun to my head”, “I thought he had a gun at my head”, and “I was afraid he might bring his gun over next week and shoot me” isn’t as clear as it seems. And all are just variations of events in the environment that contribute to a person’s un-free-willed response.

      • Posted January 14, 2020 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        But we do make such distinctions all the time. Many are necessarily fuzzy as they are social constructs but ones involving mental incapacity will gradually yield to science.

        • GBJames
          Posted January 14, 2020 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          They’re fuzzy. That’s the point. There’s no “natural” distinction, just a distribution that we divide up for convenience. Like colors. The fact that we make distinctions really tells us nothing beyond that we make them.

  34. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 14, 2020 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    Isn’t there a distinction between how the law works and how nature works? Such that in the courtroom, notions like “free will” can be useful to some extent and might be needed, while as a matter of 1st person experience, … it’s just not the same, though plaintiffs and defendants we can understand as operating in their own 1st person experiences, not free to choose.

    • Posted January 14, 2020 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      The law is concerned with which party followed the law and which party did not. The trial is to decide how each party behaved. It rewards those who were injured because the other party did something against the rule/law. The underlying assumption is that each party is sane snd could control their behavior , meaning have free will. The process would work the same without free will. The losing party would pay the damages his behavior caused, or in a criminals trial go to prison or receive a fine. He learns from his experience and does not repeat the banned behavior. That is the current theory. How well it works depends on how it is executed. I believe it works just as well or badly whether people have free will or not. Either way, as long ad the person can learn from experience. Those that cannot are considered insane snd different rules apply to them. In theory but not necessarily in practice. In he US insane people who cannot learn to obey the law or cannot function are in our prison population where they are often given drugs to keep under control.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted January 14, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        +2. 😉

  35. Dominic
    Posted January 14, 2020 at 3:12 am | Permalink

    Seeing Sean Carroll at the RI next week!

  36. Posted January 14, 2020 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    “Some of you may say that there’s no real consequences of realizing that all our behaviors are determined by physical laws… [That’s] wrong because the law already takes into account that there are legal mitigations of behavior if you have no libertarian free will. Now just extend that to all criminal acts.”

    In my view, the point you are missing here is that the key operational criterion for holding people morally accountable is not whether their actions are determined by the laws of physics (which they of course are), but whether the actions in question can be deterred by the credible threat of punishment.

    This follows naturally from the principles of Utilitarianism (the dominant approach in contemporary secular ethical frameworks). From a utilitarian point of view, we don’t impose punishment because people “deserve” blame. We do so because punishment is effective in deterring behaviors that cause harm. (The benefits of deterrence thereby outweighing the harm caused by the punishment itself.)

    The key distinction then is not between behaviors that are determined vs undetermined, but between behaviors that can be influenced (deterministically) by the credible threat of punishment.

    Moreover, while our intuitive (folk) psychology does tend toward the belief that people deserve to be punished for their bad actions, the underlying evolutionary rationale is, again, almost certainly driven by deterrence. We may feel that we are angry with someone because they “could have done otherwise,” but the ultimate, evolutionary rationale for our anger is that it serves as a (deterministic) causal input deterring future behaviors that harm our interests.

    That said, we can certainly argue about what the term “free will” should mean. But, in the context of moral responsibility, I think it makes more sense to define “freedom” with respect to the distinctions discussed above, which pick our critically important classes of behavior that actually exist in our world, rather than reserving it for the fanciful notion of behaviors that are neither causally determined nor random and thus (being logically impossible) can never exist in this world or any other.

    • Posted January 14, 2020 at 9:33 am | Permalink


    • Roo
      Posted January 14, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      I think this is true to a point, but if you look at examples where we balance utility with compassion, it has limits. Think of vulnerable populations such as animals, small children, those with special needs, and adults in cognitive decline. In those cases we will forgo punishment – even if it could be a deterrent – in the name of compassion. We don’t look at the calculus of training a puppy with treats and positive reinforcement vs. a shock collar and a stick in terms of utility alone. We think the puppy is deserving of our compassion, and even if we knew the former would be less effective, would happily go that route.

      I wonder if what we think of as ‘free will’ is really more about broad stereotypical thinking. In a comment above, I wondered how free will might be perceived in countries where ‘group guilt’ is a thing. It occurred to me that we all do this to some extent, when we stereotype any group of people and see them as a bloc. For example, in my life, it was ‘the communists’ when I was growing up. Certainly everyone who lived in those countries shouldn’t have been sort of tainted by association, but I can see how I easily invoked that mindset myself, in that case. It seemed to give them all an aura of cartoon badness. Now, when I think of prisoners who have committed terrible crimes, I think of them as “bad” – a bloc unto themselves. However, if that same person was framed a different way – a decent friend, a person who loves music, someone with a good sense of humor – who had a neurological issue where their brain secreted X neurotransmitter at X abnormal level in X situation, I might view them more sympathetically (I was just reading an article about how statins can make men violent, for example, and wasn’t inclined to think of them all as evil people – they seemed like complex people with a specific issue.)

      At any rate, I wonder if our retributive instinct is based more on categorical thinking. Seeing a person as overall, capital E Evil vs. a large set of processes, of which a few are problematic.

  37. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 14, 2020 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    My take home from this episode is that philosophers become everyday more like theologians. A common excuse for philosophy – which is non-empirical, empty – is that it should inspire science. But it doesn’t much, if any. So now I learn of the retreat that it should complement scientists and science journalists in popularizing science.

    I don’t think it should try that ‘deism’ either, and quite frankly as scientists become more engaged like Sean Carroll they will dilute the odd ducks into insignificance. After several millenniums, it is time to let Bronze Age ideologies go.

    Speaking of philosophy. First, “free will”. The expression derives from a marriage of folk psychology with major religions. I don’t much see the harm in emergent “real patterns” (Dennett, this episode) or emergent laws, it derives from renormalization, so even if it is a false pattern it can be handy. And for every case of pointing out that it harms laws in courts by inserting false bias, one can make the opposite case that “puppet” thinking is a trait of some problematic mental states and/or may provoke defeatism as well.

    Second, “determinism”. I don’t think it means what you think it means. Causal determinism can lead to contain randomness (chaos, quantum phenomena) and loss of predeterministic predictability [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determinism ]. There is this new result that ergodic systems can be separated in predictable and random parts, i.e. a system independent of initial state (oops, prederminism goes out the window) and with average behavior (averaged predictability) can have randomness (oops, loosing predeterminism again) – that example is excellent in pointing out the incoherence in the idea. I’m comfortable with light cone causality derived from relativity. Simplified cause-effect models have their use. But I wouldn’t want to try to consider Einstein’s philosophic block universe [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternalism_(philosophy_of_time) ].

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted January 14, 2020 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      “lead to contain” = lead to.
      “prederminism” = predeterminism.

      I should also add that the underlying idea behind – that we are natural systems that are constrained by physics – that we are biochemical machines, is fine. But then why not simply say so?

  38. Bruce Lilly
    Posted January 14, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    There’s a depth limit to which replies can be posted on wordpress.

    I acknowledge that programs can be written as self-modifying (or as modifying data used by the program, which is a subtle distinction without a significant difference to the big picture). Whether or not such programs can be described as “learning” or “deciding” or “choosing” or merely simulating those things deterministically is a matter of semantics.

    I’ll defer to an essay on that topic written by an AI researcher about 15 years ago (not much has changed) and addressed to an audience of philosophers: https://philosophynow.org/issues/46/Newtons_Flaming_Laser_Sword
    It’s a bit of a long read (but not as long as the podcast transcript), but very entertaining and informative. There’s absolutely no mention of “Martian zombies”.

  39. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 14, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    If humans have free will, animals should have it. Free will is an ancient concept. So why aren’t there lots experiments with rats by now? I only found this Discover article which cites a Nature Neuroscience paper. There is mention of a different interpretation of Libet’s experiments :


    I found one Pub Med article that briefly mentions free will with regard to chimpanzee studies, but if the search was for “blood groups”, there would be at least hundreds of peer reviewed articles.

    If only humans are the only animals with free will, then the notion of free will or free choice is special pleading. Some forms of language are observed in other animals, so this bar, in my view, should have been crossed long ago.

    • Posted January 14, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      The problem I have with attributing free will to animals is that it is not really clear what the property entails. It’s a human social construct so any definition with respect to non-human species is only an analogy.

      When many talk of animals having free will, it is a sign that they have some woo-ish definition of it. Humans have the spark so they wonder if non-humans do also.

      I do believe animals are agents that make decisions but I’m just not sure what “free” means in their context.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted January 14, 2020 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        “It’s a human social construct so any definition with respect to non-human species is only an analogy.”

        Chimpanzees have social constructs also. Has Jane Goodall published anything about chimpanzee free will?

      • GBJames
        Posted January 14, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        “I’m just not sure what “free” means in their context”

        Probably the same as it means in ours. To wit: “nothing”. 😉

  40. Vaal
    Posted January 14, 2020 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    “Not that it will stop me, as the laws of physics have made me a determinist!”

    Meant to be cheeky I’m sure, but that really does elicit what it often feels like debating free will with hard incompatibilists 🙂

  41. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 18, 2020 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    This podcast is delightful listening – I think there is something important to the improvised speaking that comes through when listening – I can sense when Dan is marshaling his thoughts, or using less oomph to an idea. In particular I had this chance to learn what is meant by free will, including re-reading Carroll’s “free will is as real as baseball” essay.

  42. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 23, 2020 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t cease to delight in thinking about “free will”.

    If is isn’t what we think it is, if it’s as real as baseball, is it as real as ghosts?

    Pirsig readers will recall an argument that ghosts are real. It is an amusing argument worth reading if possible.

    It seems free will is an assumption in the law, that is used in law as a stop-gap of sorts, to let things run at a basic level. But the law is not nature.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Dennett has frequently justified his compatibilist conclusion regarding free will, using the ‘little people’ argument. This suggests that while an educated elite might agree amongst themselves on the illusory nature of free will, the hoi polloi must be given a fictitious belief in free will to prevent them from behaving immorally. I believe that this is a fallacious approach to reasoning in relation to the free will issue, and Dennett himself told Sean Carroll recently that it would be “obnoxious” to make such an argument. However, just a few moments after dismissing that kind of reasoning, Dennett went on to rely on the ‘little people’ argument again. We recently talked about Dennett’s repeated use of the ‘little people’ argument on our podcast. During the same episode we also discussed the definition of free will that Dennett and Dillahunty both use, and we outlined how an Artificial Intelligence (AI) like AlphaGo fits neatly within this definition. […]

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