About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The incoherence of free will

I recently re-read a classic piece by J.L. Mackie (April 1955), entitled “Evil and Omnipotence,” a stupendous philosophical essay about why theologians like Richard Swinburne are forced by their belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevelont and omnipowerful god into incredible and rather painful feats of mental gymnastics. One of Mackie’s minor points in the essay is that the so-called “free will defense” for the existence of evil in the world is problematic because the concept of free will itself is incoherent. Although, sometimes accusations of incoherence are thrown around a bit too easily in philosophy, I think this one has the potential to stick. (Mackie goes on with a devastating critique of the free will defense, a critique that remains effective even if the core concept should in fact prove to be coherent.)

Philosophically speaking, I still think that the best treatment of free will is the one given by Dan Dennett in his Elbow Room, which is a delightful book to read in its own right. Nonetheless, one may wonder whether the concept that emerges from Dennett’s analysis is in fact what most people would recognize as “free will.”

Of course, both words making up the term have the potential to be problematic, since it is not necessarily clear what we might mean by “will.” However, for the purposes of this discussion I will simply say that the will — insofar as human beings are concerned — is whatever set of motivations (and underlying neurological mechanisms) are behind the fact that we do certain things rather than others or, indeed, that we do anything at all. (Indeed, patients affected by severe damage to their amygdalas, for instance, seem to loose the will to do anything, likely because they've lost any emotional attachment to themselves and to things in the world: just like David Hume famously predicted, without emotions “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”)

Moreover, I do not see a problem in, for instance, the Aristotelian concept of “akrasia,” or weakness of the will. Some people find it contradictory, because if I end up doing something out of my own volition — like eating a piece of chocolate cake — I cannot simultaneously claim that I did this “against my will,” because I knew that eating chocolate cake isn’t healthy. However, any human being who has struggled with food, sex, and other desires can make perfect sense of the idea of a weak will that makes you act against your own best interest even when you know perfectly well where such interest lies.

Anyway, back to the “free” part of free will. The obvious question is: free from what? That’s where coherence quickly becomes a problem. Unless you are a dualist — a thankfully dying breed among philosophers — you can’t possibly mean free from causal interactions with matter/energy, i.e. independent of the laws and materials of the universe. The will, whatever it is and however we like to conceptualize it, is grounded in the biological activity of our neurons. And last time I checked our neurons are made of matter, exchange energy (in the form of electrical currents and chemical reactions), and are subject to the laws of physics. So if that’s what you mean by “free,” it’s a no starter.

The next popular argument for a truly free will invokes quantum mechanics (the last refuge of those who prefer to keep things as mysterious as possible). Quantum events, it is argued, may have some effects that “bubble up” to the semi-macroscopic level of chemical interactions and electrical pulses in the brain. Since quantum mechanics is the only realm within which it does appear to make sense to talk about truly uncaused events, voilà!, we have (quantistic) free will. But even assuming that quantum events do “bubble up” in that way (it is far from a certain thing), what we gain under that scenario is random will, which seems to be an oxymoron (after all, “willing” something means to wish or direct events in a particular — most certainly not random — way). So that’s out as well.

It now begins to look like our prospects for a coherent sense of free will are dim indeed. If it ain’t random-quantistic or independent from causal interactions with the rest of the world, in what sense is it “free”? But if the will is not free, are we then not simply lumbering robots at the mercy of a mechanical, uncaring universe? (Or, worse yet, puppets in some god’s hands?) This conclusion strikes most people as intuitively deeply unsatisfactory. Moreover, wouldn’t that mean that human behavior would be predictable, at least in principle, if reductionist/mechanistic science became sufficiently advanced? That also strikes many as clearly off the mark.

One possible response is that, frankly, if the conclusions of a rational analysis go against your deepest held intuitions, so much the worse for your deepest held intuitions. But of course we also know that there are in fact non-deterministic physical systems (the time of decay of an individual atom, for instance), and we even know of perfectly deterministic systems whose behavior is for all effective purposes impossible to predict (chaotic, i.e. highly non-linear systems whose status at any given point in time is highly sensitive to initial conditions). So having a will that is causally connected to the rest of the physical world does not imply that our behavior is rigid or predictable.

Still, does that mean that we are in fact lumbering robots, whose illusion of being free is a combination of our ignorance of the causal web within which we are embedded and of our limited ability to compute our own future status? I think the best answer here comes from research in the cognitive sciences, which increasingly points to (at least) two levels of decision making in the brain: on the one hand, we now know that our subconscious makes a lot of decisions before we are consciously aware of them (think of those experiments showing the time-delay in electrical potential between when a muscle is being activated to perform a given action and when the subject becomes aware of having made the decision to perform that action, for instance). On the other hand, consciousness still seems to be a bit more than just a “rationalizing” process, taking on instead the role of high-level filter, or moderator, of unconscious brain processing (e.g., we can still stop an ongoing action if our conscious attention becomes focused on it).

What all of this seems to suggest is that the undeniable feeling of “free will” that we have is actually the result of our conscious awareness of the fact that we make decisions, and that we could have — given other internal (i.e., genetic, developmental) and external (i.e., environmental, cultural) circumstances — decided otherwise in any given instance. That’s what Dennett called a type of free will that is “worth having,” and I consider it good enough for this particular non-dualist, non-mystically inclined human being.


  1. My free will allows me to tell you that I disagree with what you say, but that would be silly, because I wholeheartedly agree, and I am stating so. So much for free will...

  2. Nice post but something about it strikes me as wanting to have a cake that is being eaten. I don't think it can be called free will if given the same circumstances you couldn't decide otherwise. It is only an illusion of free will and like all illusions it is imaginary.

    Imagine your choice of actions to be like floating down a river in a boat. At each fork in the river you go either right or left and think you've made a choice, but it's really just the current and momentum etc that has made this choice for you. Saying that we could have chosen a different fork if only the current had pushed us in that direction isn't much of a defense of free will. I think we're like those lumbering robots...and highly deluded to this fact.

  3. "we can still stop an ongoing action if our conscious attention becomes focused on it"

    But didn't that decision to stop the ongoing action come from the subconscious? It certainly didn't come from some supernatural 'soul'

    We don't decide to make decisions, we just make them -otherwise you have to decide to decide to make a decision and then decide to decide to decide ad infinitum... you get the point.

  4. Excellent post. I agree with you and Dennett. (because I have to???).

  5. Perhaps Dennett’s version of “free will” is the most coherent, but as long as society still clings to this inherently incoherent notion and uses it to justify treating others with malice and contempt, I still don’t find it “worth having.”

  6. I feel you left out the option of "free will" as in free from the deterministic will of (a) God, ie. 'free' means non-governance, rather that focusing on the metaphysical definition of 'will'.

    To be honest, I doubt the Christian doctrine of 'free will' goes much past this basic conceptual notion of non-governance. This is more comparing apples (philosophical free will) and oranges (Christian free will) where the only thing they have in common are the words themselves.

  7. Synchronicity: last week I posted on free will and conservative ideology:
    "Finally, I offer a test everyone can do. 'The government shouldn't take my money and give it to people who don't work because I choose to get up every morning and take my butt to work.' Fair enough: but let's test your assertion that you choose to get up and go to work. The next time you're scheduled to work, just don't go. Don't call in either. Just don't go.
    "If going to work were really a matter of free will, then there would be times when we could just not do it. The truth is our minds automatically weigh the consequences and we act based on them. We couldn't be less free--we're trained."

  8. Although I also agree with you and Dennett on this, I found Dennet's solution to the free will problem (as related in "Freedom Evolves") unsatisfying.

    It almost seemed like "You don't really have free will, but you might as well pretend you do and not worry about it."

  9. I totally agree that the idea of free will is incoherent. You say that free will is the awareness that we make decisions. That seems exactly right to me.

    But have we smuggled in another incoherent concept? What is this "awareness" you talk of?

    Maybe subjective experience is the thing that needs explaining.

  10. ♫ Freedom's just another word for nothing left to choose.... ♫

  11. I think there is an ambiguity that the free will debate has traded on for centuries: the difference between being constrained or determined by one's nature (and by God's foreknowledge and order) on the one hand, and the notion of being unconstrained by external forces, such as coercion, on the other. I can be entirely determined by who and what I am in my choices (which is the definition of responsibility), and yet be uncoerced in them, and so solely responsible for the choices.

    In other words, the "folk theory" of free will is a lack of moral coercion. The rest is largely a philosophical construction.

  12. "The obvious question is: free from what?"

    Bingo. If a particular choice is free from causes, then there is no reason at all for the choice. A choice made for no reason is arbitrary.

  13. I have been thinking about the word freedom for awhile, and I think the ambiguity of the word confounds attempts at discussing it. The closest I have come to a solution is two separate context.

    The first context of freedom is from social interference. This is what most people consider freedom. An example is paying your taxes. Sure, it is possible to not pay your taxes. However, there are consequences that come from such an action that cause most people to pay their taxes.

    The second concept of mine is freedom of mobility. Basically, this is what is possible. I can move my legs, but a paraplegic cannot. I can jump, but I cannot fly or teleport (technology can change things, but that is not the point). Similarly, given my internal and external circumstances, as you say, I can make a decision in a way that you cannot do and vice versa.

    Technically the first context of freedom is an external circumstance, but I would note that these sets of pressures are of a collective nature. As in, they are to some degree a sum of human decisions. One can argue whether or not some of these pressures must exist, and even whether some of these will not exist in the future. The idea is that social interference may interfere with our freedom of mobility; even though it is still technically possible to act in a certain way, social interference discourages us from doing so. The grey area is how our "mobile" choices affect social interference. There is certainly a relationship, but it is one that is in no way predictable or even definable.

    It is important to view these freedoms in degrees rather than absolutes, which do us no good in this situation. Degrees of one may affect degrees of the other and so forth.

  14. BaldApe: That's a terribly wrong reading of Dennett. Along with offering his account of deterministic free will, he's constantly challenging the reader's more absolutist intuitions (i.e. the feeling that the only kind of *real* freedom is the power to act differently, even if the circumstances are *exactly* the same).

    Many dualists agree that freedom means "constrained by your nature alone", but their view of agents is completely magical (in Dennett's terminology, a skyhook). It's a bit like vitalism. In the belief that a machine cannot possibly be alive, they posit a vital force. It's a temptingly easy non-solution, like the "dormitive virtue" theory of sedatives.

  15. New Scientist article citing neuroscience evidence that some free will (as Massimo describes) is real:


    Truth is, the conscious parts can have veto power over signals from the unconscious parts, and that's how we have free will (not contra-causal free will though).

    Brain Science Podcast: Discusses how we get emergence of consciousness from neurons that are not consciousness in and of themselves.


    Neurologica blog post by Dr. Steven Novella on consciousness (read the comments too):

    Daniel Dennett is brought up in the comments, although the discussion leads into quantum mechanics. A lot of believers in supernatural nonsense are using (mis)interpretations of quantum theory to rationalize their beliefs with science (see Dr. Novella's subsequent post on that very thing done by Depak Chopra). Might be a good idea to consult Victor Stenger on how the latest physics info relates to philosophy and the question of free will. If the many worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum theory applies to all reality then we're all going to have to do more thinking on this issue. Hopefully the Large Hadron Collider will delete some of the more weird ideas like MWI.

  16. I see a problem with the claim that one wouldn't want free will if free will meant only the ability to make a random choice. Consider some game-theoretic scenario in which predictability is a disadvantage: wouldn't it be better to make a random choice than a predictable -- or even pseudo-random -- choice?

  17. If my free will is only an illusion, then so what? I have no problem seeing myself as "just" a hugely complicated and sophisticated data processing machine - at least I am complicated and sophisticated! Guess this is another of these cases of not wanting to accept the best current interpretation because it makes people feel less special, similar to "I don't wanna be related to monkeys".

    A question to those who know more about physics: did I not understand it correctly that the randomness of quantum physics breaks down at the larger scales that are relevant here? Similar to the fact that you cannot tell when a particular atom of radioactive material will decay, but if you have a bunch of them on a heap, you can still say exactly when half of them will have decayed? This may be a primitive thought model, but this is how I conceptualize why the randomness of quantum does not mess up the "laws" of the universe - is that more or less a good model or complete bollocks?

  18. Even though contradictory, both free will and determinism seem to be congitive biases, higlhy razionalized into metaphysical claims.

    The one, the naive illusion that the concience is like an absolute monarch ruling over everthing that happens in the mind.

    The other, a schizophrenic paranoid anxiety that "they" know the future and are controling us.

    If taken too far, the whole debate about free will (metaphysical freedom) seems scolastic and diverts attention from the real issue: political freedom. The true opposite of freedom is not determinism, but oppression, despotism, fear, superstition and dependance.

  19. If people could accept the fact that we are animals, like any other, whose sole "reason for existance" is to survive long enough to reproduce and then enough longer to nurture and protect said offspring until enough of them are able to reproduce in turn to ensure species survival, most of these discussions would be moot. Were it not for this reluctance to understand our obvious place in the biological systems with which we must interact, Man would have no need to create a Deity, let alone to "worship" or propitiate Him/Her/It. Hence, the Christian concept of an allknowing and omnipotent Creator, constantly at conceptual odds with the Christian concept of "free will" would be meaningless. If one puts these religious issues aside, it becomes clear that our idea that we make decisions free of any outside or internal influences under any circumstances is likewise moot. When we are first born, we have no "free" will at all. This is true partly because we are physically unable to control our internal or external environment at that point, but also because we have only our inborn (evolutionary, if you will) instincts to guide us. As we grow and develop, both our physical control over ourselves and our environment increase, but our experiential data base increases geometrically in comparison. Ergo, the idea that we make any decision totally without outside influence is clearly false. If one chooses to see "free will" as the ability to make decisions that appear to be contrary to our perceived best interests, so be it, but it seems to me that even this suggests that such decisions made "at random" or against our best interests have been "influenced" by our intellectual growth and development to the same degree.

  20. Blogger John D. Draeger said...

    New Scientist article citing neuroscience evidence that some free will (as Massimo describes) is real:


    I've read through that and am not surprised that their results are open to multiple interpretations. Concluding as they did that the conscious mind can make decisions without input from the subconscious is weak.

    And as I pointed out - all conscious decisions simply 'pop' into our awareness. From where do they come? A huge amount of emotional, historical, data are often brought to bear on decisions and all those data are not processed consciously. We are, at best, dimly aware of why or how we actually make any decisions (although terribly good at pretending we have rational justifications for all of them!)

    I stand by my understanding that free will is a delusion.

  21. "Our free will is the most important element of
    our design, because within that will lies the power to choose between
    life and death, good and evil, faith and fear, darkness and light, God
    and Satan. Our will is the master of all of our faculties and upon our
    will everything else depends. It controls our reason, our
    intelligence, our emotions and our abilities. It directs everything
    within us and is the "gate" through which all things must pass."
    Nancy Missler http://www.khouse.org/articles/1999/189/

  22. Seems more like she swallowed all the pills in the bottle, and then some.

  23. Be nice.

    Yeah, I know. The irony of me saying that. But still. Stick to substance, please.

    Once I hit "element of our design" I became disinterested in what followed, because it requires accepting an assumption that has never been substantiated (and in fact has been debunked rather thoroughly). If someone wants to accept it anyway, that's their prerogative, but with respect to the current discussion this is really on another track entirely.

  24. So if there's no free will, Christianity is bunk. I guess Christianity's bunk then!

  25. Nice post. I agree with the idea of "weak will" being key. Human brains evolved from a primarily emotional brain of conditioned responses to a brain sometimes also capable, during its better moments, of something resembling rational analysis. Sensory input still goes through the emotional brain first though, adding an overlay before the intellect gets a chance to examine a situation. I see the observed human phenomenon commonly referred to as "free will" as being, in practice, the ability to override the conditioned responses of the sensory mind and use the intellect instead. This ability is a quantitative trait subject most likely to both genetic and environmental influenced. In particular, it improved with practice. On the other hand, neuroscience gives some pretty good reasons why it never becomes complete.

  26. What all of this seems to suggest is that the undeniable feeling of “free will” that we have is actually the result of our conscious awareness of the fact that we make decisions, and that we could have — given other internal (i.e., genetic, developmental) and external (i.e., environmental, cultural) circumstances — decided otherwise in any given instance.

    I am amazed that anyone would be satisfied designating this as free will. "The feeling that you could have chosen something else."

    What Massimo (joining others) have laid out here is exactly that there are no reasons to think we could have chosen otherwise, that it is only a feeling, and nothing more.

    That way of thinking of free will doesn't ring a bell with me.

  27. Well, think of it this way: we know that chaos and randomness (which are not the same thing) apparently exist in the universe at large and small scales. Is there any reason to think that they are not represented in our decision-making processes as well? And if we both have the feeling of being able to choose, and due to non-deterministic aspects of our existence we are unable to predict with any high level of certainty what an individual will choose, how much more room does the notion of free will need? Taking it beyond these factors seems unnecessary to account for the complexity of human behaviors. I suspect the impulse to do so is essentially an expression of human exceptionalism.

  28. What exactly is a scientist looking for when she is empirically testing our deep held intuition that we have contra-casual free will? Just curious.

    You look down the microscope and see a wee man inside the brain operating the central control pannel, I suppose...

  29. Contra-casual free will requires the wee man to be dressed to the nines.

  30. Sure one could argue that my perception of free will is nothing but a strongly held perception, but there's a big difference between "could be" and "is" which is why there's a debate in the first place.
    Perhaps another way to approach the question of free will would be to better understand how our sense of self awareness works. I think that's what the mind/body dualist's were trying to address but their answer (and religion's) is essentially "it's magic." (mind/soul are independent from matter, energy, and natural laws, i.e. magic)
    But might the mind/sentience/self awareness/free will be emergent properties? I think that has the most potential to provide a naturalistic account for our neurology and psychology and still give room for free will in some meaningful, if limited, way.

    "One more from xkcd, on the meaning of life, if you will."

  31. Paul,

    1) I don't think we've established what "free will" means. Without doing this, we can't meaningfully discuss whether or not it exists.

    2) Why do you attempt to affirm its existence? Does your life (aside from your understanding of it) change in any way with this knowledge?

  32. The whole discussion makes me think of Asimov's "psychohistory", as per his Foundation series, which postulated that group behavior can be predicted with great accuracy even though individual behavior was largely inscrutable. Kinda like an ideal gas law, for humans.

  33. Great article, you can check my oppinions at this post, or read part of them below.

    When it comes to building the physical world, we kind of understand our limitations. We build steps. And we build these things that not everybody can use obviously. (Laughter) We understand our limitations. And we build around it. But for some reason when it comes to the mental world, when we design things like healthcare and retirement and stockmarkets, we somehow forget the idea that we are limited. I think that if we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations, even though they don't stare us in the face in the same way, we could design a better world.

    Dan Ariely states tha Consumers make numerous decisions on a daily basis. Therefore by understanding the underlying mechanisms that drive the particular choices consumers make is invaluable. His goal is to argue and demonstrate that individuals sometimes make decisions according to preset rules and not their preferences, and that such a decisionmaking mechanism may lead them to make decisions that don’t always maximize their utilities.

  34. While you might believe that freewill in incoherent, the denial of freewill – a strictly materialistic phenomenon – is even more incoherent.

    Viewed from a different perspective -- Although science can demonstrate the many materialistic-neuronal correlates to thinking and freewill, all of these evidences are insufficient to prove that freewill is JUST a matter of electro-chemical reactions.

    Conclusion: The “freewill defense” is back on the table!

  35. Mann'sWord,

    as usual, your take is much too quick. The FW defense is not back on the table because you have not answered Machey's (and my) challenge: can you give a coherent account of free will? Only after *that* we can talk about whether neurobiology is or is not sufficient to explain it.

    And of course, even if it isn't sufficient, the burden of proof is on *you* to show that there is some immaterial account of it, whatever that may mean (I haven't the foggiest).

  36. Massimo,

    One problem you have is that you can’t deny freewill without exercising your freewill. Your challenge can’t attain the status of rational truth needed to disqualify the existence of freewill without freewill. If your denial is no more than a chemical reaction, what claim could it possibly make in favor truth content?

    Add to this the fact that materialism can’t account for freewill – something that is as patently obvious to us as is our own existence. Therefore, freewill must be predicated upon something beyond mere deterministic materialistic causation.

    You request a definition of freewill. So let me take a stab at it: Choice that is under-determined by materialistic causation.

  37. You are assuming freewill. Clearly, if you start with the assumption that it exists, you've sidestepped the idea that a coherent accounting of it is necessary, since the one thing that an assumption explicitly is not is any kind of accounting. So in fact, you and Massimo are talking past each other, not having an actual conversation.

  38. My question is, who is it you suspect of having "free will"?

    To say that a person's activity is totally constrained by biology/chemistry/physics is not very interesting because there isn't any way of predicting behavior on that basis, because we don't understand very well how person-ality works on any of those levels. A little we understand, but not very much.

    But to what extent is a person-ality locally generated, as opposed to being a reflection or extension of the society or culture in which it is imbedded? Original ideas, as opposed to a local arrangement of circulating "memes", are vanishingly rare.

    If original ideas are a product of a society or culture... is it meaningful to speak of a society (such as the USA) as having free will?

  39. Are you advancing the premise that generating an original idea is an act of will?

  40. @perspicio:
    I am suggesting that an act of will would involve creativity like generating an original idea. Unfortunately, I don't find that one can generate original ideas on purpose.

  41. Perspicio,

    There are several things that I must presuppose, whether explicitly or implicitly. I must presuppose that I exist, that I have freewill, that other consciousnesses exist and that I can make meaningful statements. And all of this presupposes God, something I believe that Massimo also must presuppose, at least implicitly.

  42. Mann'sWord,

    *I* presuppose the existence of a god? And I thought you actually read my posts...

  43. These last comments have been making less and less sense...

    >>>an act of will would involve creativity like generating an original idea.
    >>>I don't find that one can generate original ideas on purpose

    Isn't an "act of will" == doing something on purse?

  44. Massimo,

    You must implicitly presuppose the reality of God in numerous ways:

    The use of unchanging reason and logic by which you make your points depends upon unchanging truth, which in turn requires a broad enough foundation. Naturalism is not an adequate explanation or worldview. It can only account for molecules-in-motion.

    You also must implicitly presuppose the commodity of truth. Hence, you must reject the incoherent adage that “the only truth is change itself.” If this were the case, conversation and learning would be rendered meaningless. However, if all we have is an expanding universe, there is no adequate foundation for immutable truth. Therefore, there must be a Transcendent immutable reality.

    Also, I think that the incredible correspondence between our thinking and the eternal reality speaks powerfully for a grand Designer.

  45. Mann'sWord,

    I repeat:

    The one thing that an assumption explicitly is not is any kind of accounting.

    If you are unable to set aside your assumption of free will in the context of a discussion exploring what may account for it, then you're not having that discussion; you're having a different one. This is not to say you're right or wrong, just to observe that you don't accept the parameters of the discussion, so nothing you say can impact it in any meaningful way.

    Maybe an example helps clear this up. It's as if a group of people were having a discussion about what kinds of apples make for the best apple pies, and somebody expressed his view that apple pies are are better than rhubarb pies. Okay...it's of course perfectly acceptable for him to hold that opinion...but it contains no information that is applicable to the ongoing discussion.

    Does that help clarify this at all?

    Val Schuman,

    Taking the two comments by Blue Ridge that you're looking at, I notice that the 1st one can be boiled down to "an act of will...involves...creativity...." It doesn't posit that creativity is sufficient to establish free will, only that it is a necessary precursor. The second statement essentially says that creativity does not follow from free will...which just serves as a restatement of the first remark's implication that creativity precedes free will, not the other way around.

    Is that a fair assessment, Blue Ridge?

  46. Massimo,

    I am beginning to think that you were not phased by my prior armchair psychology not because of some innate tolerance for bullshit but because you regularly encounter much smellier dung.

  47. Ritchie,

    wise and insightful observation indeed... :-)

  48. re: "Still, does that mean that we are in fact lumbering robots, whose illusion of being free is a combination of our ignorance of the causal web within which we are embedded and of our limited ability to compute our own future status?"

    Short answer: Yes.
    I suspect that many aspects of our "free will" are in fact vestiges of primordial instincts passed down from our fish-like ancestors or even earlier. I don't know why I make some of the choices that I make. I can ascribe those decisions to various bits of knowledge and experience that I think are relevant to the situation but that may be a "just-so story"... an after-the-fact rationalization. We don't have free will. We are the cumulative total of our experiences and our inherited instincts. The fact that we cannot examine a person's experiences and instincts, and accurately predict their choice in a given situation is more an 'argument from ignorance' than a proof for free will.

  49. saith Perspico:
    Taking the two comments by Blue Ridge that you're looking at, I notice that the 1st one can be boiled down to "an act of will...involves...creativity...." It doesn't posit that creativity is sufficient to establish free will, only that it is a necessary precursor. The second statement essentially says that creativity does not follow from free will...which just serves as a restatement of the first remark's implication that creativity precedes free will, not the other way around.
    Is that a fair assessment, Blue Ridge?

    Well, it was late at night and I was thinking with my fingers again. I agree with Massimo that the notion of "Free Will" is problematic, as is the notion of an unconditioned "Creativity", but the two notions are not entirely incoherent and seem intimate. What I really want to point to is the point of view that all human activity takes place in a cultural context... art depends on prior art... scientific advance is a development from previous science, and so on. Case in point, here we are: I wouldn't be thinking these confusing new thoughts without the stimulation of this multi-author'd thread here... whatever creativity isn't "just me", it's "just a POV" within this groupthink.
    So if Creativity is located within the Culture and not the Individual, what shall we say about Free Will?

  50. Die Anyway,

    What you wrote is so self-truncating and life-denying. It reminds me of what renegade psychologist James Hillman wrote,

    “We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.” (“The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling,” Random House, 6)

    I would therefore encourage you to look beyond this stifling reductionistic and materialistic view of self

  51. Mann'sWord:

    I am rather confused as to what you actually consider "free will" to be. There are several ways to approach the issue, and I suspect that your approach is strictly necessitated by your belief in a god that would not purposefully condemn anyone to hell. There are some very serious problems with this logic which I will address, but first I would like to examine free will in a strictly physical sense.

    Now I have read the various quantum theories of the mind and I would not advise anyone to approach free will from this perspective. Why? Well I cannot speak for everyone, but I certainly do not consider such an arbitrary theory of cognition to be scientific in any sense of the word. In order to even consider a quantum explanation of the mind, you must first accept a multiple mathematical calculations, probabilities, and measurements as conclusive, and by doing so you must discriminate against all other mathematica approaches which might conclude otherwise. Simply put, results in quantum mechanics depend on the type of measurement used, and only offer conclusions relevant to that specific measurement.

    So we can disregard the quantum mind theory for the time being (this could change), but I still don't see how quantum mind theories would validate free will even if they were conclusive. The reason being that random occurrences do not infer random choices. It seems to me that the mind must be reversible, but not necessarily predictable. If we accept that random interference is possible (which seems plausible, just not in the quantum sense) we essentially rule out any possibility for reliable prediction. Though we might establish certain causations, we cannot extrapolate them because we do not know how the mind will react to random interference until that interference happens. Once that mind is dead, we can certainly reverse engineer cognition. Free will is still out of the question because the mind still operated in a deterministic, sum-of-all factors manner. We just don't know how a given mind will react to a given random occurrence until after the fact. Now this still relies on technology that we are nowhere near developing, but free will doesn't seem to be an option.

    This took longer than I thought, but I'd like to address religious free will if you can bear with me.

    Unless one ascribes to the doctrine of predestination, the relationship between free will and the problem of evil is problematic. If God does not will people to hell then there must be an opportunity for all people to choose God. Platinga devised a solution to this problem that many find reasonable. He proposed that the existence of evil is necessary in order to allow free will. God could not create free individuals unless he also allowed the existence of evil. Now we can approach this in several different directions, but will focus on one aspect. I take issue with Platinga's proposition that God could not create free-willed human beings without the ability to do evil things. This creates a false dichotomy between choices. Every choice is either good or evil. What about the choice between two goods or two evils? I see no reason that God could not create humans that simply lack the desire to kill, lie, cheat, etc. The standard response to this is, "But those would not be humans." In turn, my response is that by raising this objection one would not actually believe in free will, because this objection by default defines human beings by their predisposition toward evil and their inability to do otherwise.

    Gah, sorry for jacking all your comment space Massimo. You have my permission to respond in turn of you ever feel so inclined. Heh.

  52. Wow, this discussion has turned into a goldmine of fun. "Oh boy" indeed! Particularly amusing is the wishful thinking evident in some posts: "but... but... if we do not have free will, that means the world is not as I want it to be. Therefore we must have free will!" Why does a certain kind of mind never realize that this is a fallacy when discussing issues that are related to their religious beliefs, while they would be sure to smack it down if the same thinking were applied to everyday matters? But... but... I want to be a millionaire, therefore me being a millionaire must be true! Hah.

    Personally, I was also perturbed somewhat when, a few years back, neuroscience came out big in the news and the general conclusion was that free will is an illusion. To be honest, it helps me to think about it in exactly the terms that Massimo is framing the issue: what is free will supposed to be, anyway? If you really think about it, what should I have done differently a few years back - kicked a friend in the face instead of making pleasant conversation just to demonstrate that I can decide to do so? But I do not want to. Does this limitation make me less human? Of course, I have made some decisions that I would change if I had to do it all over with my current experience in the background. But when I made them, they were made based on my experiences and character of that time, and so I did the best I could then, and would rationally repeat the mistake instead of doing something seemingly illogical if time were played back and then forward again. Does that limitation make me less human?

    I guess that is Massimo's point here. Crying oh noes, I do not have free will, I must feel bad now is silly if you consider that free will is just a human concept that has never been satisfactorily defined.

  53. I feel compelled to repeat my point that the thing that needs explaining isn't free will. As Massimo has pointed out free will is just us experiencing the decision process.

    We experience light as the experience of color. But that experience tells us very little of the nature of light. If anything the experience is misleading.

    We experience the decision processes of our brain as free will. It isn't any more real than the experience of color and is much more misleading.

    The hard problem is what exactly is this thing called experience? What does it mean to see, hear and feel rather than just detect?

    This is the origin of zombie arguments.

  54. Here's another thought re religion and free will: If we had free will, it would mean that we would be unpredictable. But god knows everything. Even before we're ever born, he knows how our whole lives will play out. How does that factor into free will?

  55. Val,

    that's precisely one of Mackie's arguments against the coherence of the concept of god itself. It falls into the general category of self-referential paradoxes that Bertrand Russell discovered (you know, can a barber shave himself in a town where everybody has to be shaved by a barber and not by himself?).


    I have a very low opinion of zombie-type arguments. See:


  56. Chris Osborn,

    I certainly share your skepticism regarding quantum effects and their ability to account for freewill. It seems like apples and oranges.

    You ask why God didn’t create us without evil desires. Actually, God did create us without evil desires! However, even having just good desires, we would be still prone to wrong priorities, like when we eat too much or when we treat others unfairly because we’re trying to protect a friend or brother.

    So I too am inclined to think that if God had created us in a way to safeguard against crime/sin, He would have made us less-than-human.

  57. To All My Freewill Deniers:

    This is a belief that we just cannot deny without condemning ourselves to contradiction and confusion. Just imagine that a friend maliciously ruined your reputation. You confront him and he replies, “Sorry about that – I just don’t have any freewill. My chemistry made me do it! I’m therefore not guilty. Pick a fight with my chemistry!”

    If you don’t believe in freewill, at least to some extent, your worldview prevents you from taking action and precludes responsible behavior in general.

    You might respond to me that “simply because it’s difficult to be a freewill-denier does mean that this stance is incorrect!” However, if this stance isn’t livable, then you contradict it by the way you live your life. Hence, your life invalidates your stance. I would simply point out that “while you say one thing with your mouth, you say something entirely different with your life, thereby invalidating your denial of freewill.”

  58. Massimo,

    Yes I have read that entry. Your criticism of these zombie arguments is dead on. But I didn't say that experience was the source of good zombie arguments. In fact my point is that internal experience drives us to error.

    Behaviorists discount internal experience entirely. I'm uncomfortable with that but I have nothing better. Science discounts subjective in favor of the objective. But as a result science seems to have no tool for handling the subjective or even allowing it to be defined.

  59. Mann'sWord:

    It is probably not useful to reply at all because a true believer is impervious to arguments anyway, but well...

    No, this does not prevent me from action. Whether it is my chemistry or my hallucinated soul thingie that made me do it is irrelevant, it is still me doing it. I am I, even if I am a collection of atoms with my mind as a process emerging from purely material processes instead of a collection of atoms with a magic element grafted onto it.

    Seriously, what is so difficult about that? Why must you religious types always assume that without god handing the meaning of life down to us people can only commit suicide? That without god setting moral guidelines people can only axe-murder each other? And in this case, that without some magical mo-yo that is not subject to the dirty laws of physics and chemistry we must simply sit around and drool? Watch me. Watch every other atheist. We do not commit suicide, we do not commit crimes, we are not more apathetic than believers. Your imagined problem simply. does. not. exist. Gah.

  60. And yes, I understood what you are saying. You do not accept that we believe what we claim to. Quite apart from the fact that this it is always offensive and patronizing to tell people that you understand them better than they do, this is simply wrong.

    You can of course be, to take what is perhaps the most radical position, a complete determinist and still live your life exactly the same way as if you weren't. The act of making decisions is not at all incompatible with the idea that later, looking back, you could not have made another decision at the time. In any situation you still have to react to your surroundings, and you are motivated to do this in the best way even if you see yourself "only" as a sophisticated data processing device. You making the decision that you see as most beneficial would then also have been pre-determined, as would have been you acting like a bully just to prove the point that you can if you had decided otherwise. It is a purely philosophical question that changes nothing in how you live your daily life, not least because you cannot rewind the tape and prove that 5% of the time you would have done something else than what you originally did. And that is what I was getting at above.

    Where this worldview might (but not necessarily does) emotionally influence us is in the treatment of others. Yes, seeing a criminal as the product of circumstances and brain chemistry instead of a willful evildoer who could just have not done his deed has the consequence of thinking more in terms of avoidance of crime and rehabilitation of criminals instead of in terms of punishment. I remember Dawkins did an essay on Edge about that line of thought once. I do not entirely agree, but this is certainly a way people could be moved to think based on a disbelief in free will. What the problem with that would be is, however, beyond me.

  61. Mittman,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond even though I am “a true believer…impervious to arguments” – perhaps however no more so than someone who lacks the freewill to learn, take responsibility and grow!

    My argument focused on how the denial of freewill would lead us into confusion and conflict and not on the way you would live your life, although this too would subsequently be affected. When we deny freewill, we not only undermine the basis for culpability and punishment, as you acknowledge, but also for responsibility and accountability across the entire spectrum of our lives.

    In the long run, I fear that this can only prove life-denying, narrowing, and ultimately self-defeating. Why talk to your children about their moral responsibilities? After all, they’re just going to do what they’ve been programmed to do. Why give your students failing grades? Instead, communicate to them that they are no more than “a sophisticated data processing device.” Such de-humanizing language can only have a de-humanizing impact upon them!

    Will I correct and discipline my son when he curses me out? Will I treat him as if he is morally responsible or will I treat him as if he is a “device”? Will I complain when the boss doesn’t give me the promised raise or when the cashier short-changes me, if they aren’t morally culpable? Should I blame the mugger who mugs me and leaves me crippled? Should I press charges? Without freewill, holding him responsible is like holding my roof morally responsible when it leaks.

    Will I admit my mistakes and bad behavior, especially if doing so comes at a cost and I have been pre-programmed to do all the hurt I’ve caused? I am not a prophet, but I predict that you will find this philosophical commitment unworkable and a diminuation of your personhood.

  62. Mintman, you are my hero! The way you explain everything to MannsWord is useful, I'm sure that if you persist at it, after a long while, he may begin to grasp what you are saying.

    But his last response to you simply amazes me. It's like he missed everything you were saying!

    Either way, I guess I'll take a stab at it too.

    Why talk to your children about their moral responsibilities? After all, they’re just going to do what they’ve been programmed to do.

    Well, because, even though it may seem like you have a choice - you really don't. In fact, why don't you try it, my freewilling friend. Why don't you not talk to your children about their moral responsibilities, give your students (if you have any) failing grades, etc. After all, you can do it, can't you?

    But you won't do this. Because you understand, that it would be stupid to do it. And even if you did do it, just to prove me wrong, it still wouldn't be free will, it would just be the way you were meant to respond to the stimuli applied to you.

    Not having free will doesn't mean that we're mindless robots. In our case, it means that our brains are configured in such a way as to understand what's better for us and act accordingly. But we do our own processing! That's why it seems like free will exists. Because we wish do to something and we do it. But can you explain WHY you wish to do the things you want to do?

  63. Sorry if I was a bit unfriendly. However, I fear you have still not understood the basic idea. Yes, your children do what they are programmed to do - but if you do not "talk to them about their moral responsibilities", then their programming will be different, so what is your argument for not doing it then? Correcting and disciplining your cursing son is the thing to do whether free will is a coherent concept or not! Etc. pp. There is no practical difference for your life except that you seem to need to paste an arguably meaningless concept into your worldview to feel all warm and cozy while I do not.

    Perhaps things become clearer if I try to make some parables.

    1. Consider discussing a computer and its software. Probably we are agreed that a computer is just a bunch of atoms and electrons and so on, and it is completely deterministic. You can implement marvelous programs on it, e.g. for playing chess against a human or for regulating a climate chamber at my institute. In all cases, the computer evaluates a lot of external data (e.g. position of pawns; light and temperature conditions) against memory states and logical rules and then selects one of several possible courses of action - it makes decisions. It does not have free will - if you give it the same program and the same data it will always make the same decision, but they are decisions all the same, and often intriguingly good ones. Now if you pry it open and look at its innards you will not be able to say anything about these sophisticated decision processes; nor if you count and weigh all the molecules of the computer; nor if look at each individual byte of the software. Still, I have no problem with saying, yes, basically this computer is just a bunch of material and electricity, and the decisions it makes are just the outcome of this material basis combined with the current external input, and it does not have free will. You, however, extending your argument for humans, are saying that it needs a magic ingredient called free will because the computer makes decisions, and would it not be weird to assume that a bunch of molecules can decide? Point is, for all we know, we are nothing but a much, much, much more complicated data processing device, and all our decisions are, like in the case of the computer, based on external information weighed against memory states, and if you run the exact same input against the exact same experiences and moral teachings, you will arguably (unfortunately not demonstrably, that is why it is a philosophical discussion) always get the exact same decision. I at least do not know why I should be expected to swipe the food off the table instead of eating it if I had to replay this evening's dinner.

    2. Now for the moral angle, consider a faulty device. Let us say you have a machine in a factory that is getting old and performing ever more poorly. Now it has even zapped a colleague and he has nearly died - apparently on top of everything the insulation has broken down and it is not safe to operate any more. We are probably agreed that, obviously, this machine does not have free will. Nevertheless, it is responsible in any sensible meaning of the word for zapping the worker. We would either repair (~correct and discipline) it or throw it away (~death penalty or lifetime imprisonment). But going by your logic, we would all just sit around letting it perform badly at its function and threaten people with electric shocks - we cannot morally do anything, as it has no magic free will, after all! Of course that is silly. Similarly, there is no reason not to discipline people and hold them responsible even if free will is a meaningless concept.

  64. Mintman (and Val),

    Thanks for the clarification. Gosh, I shouldn’t have said that! When I thanked you, I had forgot that you haven’t self-described yourselves as moral beings with freewill for whom “thanks” is appropriate, but as “devices” pre-pre-programmed to say whatever you are going to say. So please forgive me for my inappropriate response and my failure to acknowledge you as you so desire to be acknowledged. (But I know that you won’t forgive me unless you have been programmed to do so!)

    I should be truly honored that you have given me (or have been programmed to give me) such access to you life, something I’m not truly worthy of. It means that, if I can figure out your wiring, I can control your reactions and get you to respond to me as I would my computer. I just need to study the program??

    Please forgive my flippancy. I don’t mean to denigrate you or give offense. I’m just trying to be playful. However, I think that your final example speaks volumes about the impact of your denial of freewill on morality and our regards for our fellow man, or ah, “computer.” If it’s not functional or can’t be made functional, get rid of it! I think that this is a natural consequence of reducing us to “devices.”

    What do you think might be the social implications of this philosophy? If the “Bill of Rights” has no application to my computer, should it continue to have its full application to us? Perhaps we will be valued only in terms of functionality, like any device? Those members of society that have been deemed to be more valuable or functional will be protected, while those who are deemed a “drain on resources” or just “outdated” will be eliminated? Scary?

  65. So please forgive me for my inappropriate response and my failure

    It's alright. It's not like you can help yourself...

  66. Mann'sWord:

    Now this is just silly. Do you not understand the concept of a parable, or of a comparison? I did not say that we should treat other humans like we do machines, I just tried to give you a simple model of decision-making that could be understood easily.

    If you read carefully, and you did seem already to have grasped that further above, the logical consequence of not accepting the existence of free will is, for many, to reject a punishment-based system of justice and move towards a rehabilitation-based one. This is the exact opposite of "get rid of it", which would be the death penalty.

    Myself, I do not let this whole philosophical exercise on free will influence my view of justice very much, just as accepting the existence of natural selection does not lead me to kill the disabled, and just as accepting the law of gravity does not lead me to push people off tall buildings.

    How you get all these quick connections from "is" to "should be" is really baffling - perhaps you should take a deep breath and carefully consider that these are, in fact, different things: The world is not X just because you think X is desirable; and conversely, if the world out there can be shown to be X beyond reasonable doubt, that still does not mean that we have to copy X in our interactions with each other.

  67. Mintman (and Val),

    Although I have no problem accepting your affirmation of human worth despite your denial of freewill, I think that it’s inevitable that our estimation of humanity will be seriously degraded over time.

    We see this slide happening all over. As society shifts from a sanctity-of-human-life orientation, based upon Biblical revelation, to a quality-of-life orientation, based upon a social assignment of value, abortions, euthanasia, and the idea of human cloning have become more acceptable.

    Although I’m glad that you affirm that “I do not let this whole philosophical exercise on free will influence my view of justice very much, just as accepting the existence of natural selection does not lead me to kill the disabled,” I have to ask, “Why not?” How can you not allow your views to influence your morality? By denying freewill, you have taken away something that contributes to our worth, which separates us from cows and pigs. Upon what basis then will you continue to value humanity and why?

  68. it’s inevitable that our estimation of humanity will be seriously degraded over time.

    Slippery slope fallacy: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/slippery-slope.html

    Upon what basis then will you continue to value humanity and why?

    Secular Humanism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_humanism

    I'm sorry for the terseness, but the argument is very old and all the answers are already there.

    Either way, there are plenty or religious folks who believe in free will and yet do not value humanity or human life. Unfortunately, I'm not surprised that this doesn't puzzle you.

  69. Val,

    You responded, “Either way, there are plenty or religious folks who believe in free will and yet do not value humanity or human life.”

    I certainly can agree with you that there are many reasons that we might devalue humanity. I don’t want to only lay the blame on freewill-deniers or secular humanists. However, it’s almost indisputable that the way we think (our worldview) will profoundly impact the things we say and do. If I think that someone is trying to hurt me, I will respond defensively or aggressively.

    Similarly, if I don’t believe that Bernie Madoff is created in the image of God, and he had swindled me, I would try to take revenge. Furthermore, if I believe that a comatose patient will never recover consciousness, this will affect my attitudes (and perhaps behavior) towards him. Likewise, if I truly believe that humans are “devices,” it will affect my attitudes and behavior.

    I think we need to grapple with the implications of our beliefs. When we deny the connection between beliefs and attitudes, we are in denial (Sorry, not very profound!).

  70. Mann'sWord:

    Which of these do value more:

    That your beliefs are true.


    That the implications of your beliefs are desirable.


    You see, the implications of what we believe has no bearing on whether our beliefs are true. I care that my beliefs are true, regardless of the implications.

  71. Here is an outstanding essay on the implications of determinism:


  72. @ppnl & Massimo, re "zombie-type arguments"

    Unfortunately Ms. Hanrahan's argument is pay to play. But anyway, from Massimo's summary: "premise 2: Conceivability provides us with a guide to possibility". This was "http://books.google.com/books?id=qoMsAAAAYAAJ&dq=intitle%3Agod%20inauthor%3Aspinoza&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=0&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q=&f=false">Spinoza's argument that God exists: "Everything which we clearly and distinctly understand to belong to the nature of a thing, we can truly affirm also of the thing, we can truly affirm also fo the thing itself; But that existence belongs to the nature of God we can clearly and distinctly understand;"; and TYA. ..."There You Are"; English for QED, ;-)

    You might probably be familiar with "http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-room">Searle's "Chinese Room" argument, which is somewhat similar to Chalmers'... but Searle, a non-dualist, claimed his thought experiment proved that "Strong AI" - a self-conscious machine - is impossible. It seems to me that on Searle's analysis, ordinary humans wouldn't have consciousness, either... nobody could possibly "really understand" Chinese, even if they could converse in it.

    My (and others') conclusion would be that consciousness (qualia) emerges from the whole system... neurons, hormones, and all, embedded in a situation. Non-dualist, non-mystical AND non-reducible. That is, ppnl, "experience" isn't "internal". No little man inside (...in the pineal gland?...) watching out the windows.

  73. Double Ak. I give up.

    But that was Spinoza's argument for God.

  74. Mann'sWord:

    I think that it’s inevitable that our estimation of humanity will be seriously degraded over time.

    Degraded or improved? It is a value in itself to have beliefs that correspond as closely to reality as possible. That is, among other things, because this will give us ultimately a better basis to make decisions - what good is convincing yourself that you can fly on the basis that this would be nicer if you still fall down like a stone once you try to rely on your wishful thinking? Similarly, if free will really is an incoherent concept, taking this into account would probably allow us to deal with things like responsibility and justice more adequately (~not jumping out of a high window), even if you personally do not like the new way of dealing with it (~but I wanna be able to fly!). If we best understand human nature, we will be able to build the most humane society for ourselves.

    We see this slide happening all over. As society shifts from a sanctity-of-human-life orientation, based upon Biblical revelation, to a quality-of-life orientation, based upon a social assignment of value, abortions, euthanasia, and the idea of human cloning have become more acceptable.

    That is a terribly ideological and one-sided view of things, along with a good helping of romantization of the past. I do not think that western civilization has ever seen a more peaceful, humane, enlightened and at the same time secular society than the one in which I grew up. Of course, for me, the last point is no accident but partly causal for the first three. In addition, to put it mildly, not everybody agrees with you that abortion and assisted suicide are bad; and as a biologist, I find the whole cloning scare laughable, but I do not want to dig into that.

    By denying freewill, you have taken away something that contributes to our worth, which separates us from cows and pigs. Upon what basis then will you continue to value humanity and why?

    Why do you need to feel so elevated above animals? We are animals! (Or at least it would be new to me if we were plants or fungi.) Is being much more intelligent, creative and adaptive than other animals not enough for your ego? Is being the same species not reason enough for you to save a fellow human from a building instead of a dog? I don't get your problem.

    Anyhow, it is patently obvious that your whole contributions here are not an intent to prove that free will is a coherent concept, but rather why you would like to pretend it is even if it objectively is not. That is, however, not the point of Massimo's essay - if it was, the title would probably have been something along the lines of "why we should give up on trying to understand the world and instead follow those opinions that make us personally most comfortable".

  75. Eh, "burning building", of course.

  76. Ray Baird and Mintman,

    I certainly agree with you both that the question of truth has to precede any pragmatic concerns. (In fact, I think we’d all agree that embracing the truth imparts certain pragmatic pluses, as you’ve pointed out.) However, we part company after this:

    1. In answer to Ray: Not only do my beliefs represent truth, a life with Christ also affords many benefits, psychological and otherwise. Therefore, I can’t separate truth from its beneficial results.

    2. While you assert that freewill is incoherent, it seems that the denial of freewill is incoherent. In response to this denial, it can be stated, “Well, that’s just your chemistry speaking!”

    3. Your denial of freewill doesn’t seem to have an evidential basis. Simply because we can find many physical, deterministic corollaries to what we experience as freewill, this fails to prove that there aren’t some undetermined aspects. Instead, it appears that your conclusion is driven by philosophical materialism/naturalism.

    4. I cannot deny my freewill without also denying other things that are equally obvious to me. If I’ve been duped about my freewill, then I have also been duped about my existence and my other sensory perceptions. In order to live coherently, I must accept this package.

    5. I cannot deny our freewill and, at the same time, treat others with the dignity that I believe is inherent in them. This would place me in conflict.

    6. If I deny our freewill, I can’t approve of punishment of people who consequently aren’t morally responsible. It would be no better than might-makes-right.

    These aren’t strictly pragmatic concerns. If my mouth says one thing, but my behavior consistently says the contrary, I’ve invalidated my worldview and it’s time to shop around for another worldview more consistent with reality.

  77. "Your denial of freewill doesn’t seem to have an evidential basis."

    Well that is plainly false. Look at the work of Benjamin Libet, to cite an early experiment.

    There is a reason the overwhelming majority of neuroscientists and psychologists reject contra-causal free will: because the evidence against it is overwhelming.

  78. Rob,

    Even though I'm not familiar with these findings, I would suspect that, rather than disproving freewill, they merely show that there are many physiological corollaries.

    If I'm mistaken, I'd be glad to hear YOUR reasoning.

  79. "Even though I'm not familiar with these findings"

    Well then become familiar. That is, if you care whether your beliefs are true. Wegner's "The Illusion of Conscious Will" would be a good place to start.

  80. Mann'sWord:

    Or just understand Massimo's essay, for starters. But it is no use anyway! Like a broken record, you keep repeating "if I reject free will then I must also do X" no matter how often it is explained why you do not have to. Or maybe you have to, but nobody else. And like a broken record, you come back again and again not to arguments why the proposed conclusion is wrong, but always to arguments why it would be undesirable to accept it from a consequentialist perspective. You seem to be pathologically unable to grasp the concept of endeavoring to increase our understanding of the nature of the world we find ourselves in. Your whole argumentation here suggests that you prefer to start by deciding what you find pleasant to believe and then stop testing whether these beliefs are internally consistent or factual. Please get your head around it: there are people in the world who do not curl up in fear, cry and pull a comforting faith blanket over their head if they find that the universe may possibly not be as they would like it to be - instead, they boldly look the ramifications of their tentative conclusions and observations into the eye and deal with it the best they can, humanely and compassionately.

  81. Rob,

    I deeply suspect that these studies cannot disprove freewill. It’s like trying to disprove God exists. It can’t be done. But I’m certainly open to your argumentation.

  82. Mintman,

    How can you blame me for being a “broken record?” Isn’t this just the nature of deterministic materialism? Or are some more “broken” than others?

    Please take another look at my arguments. Each demonstrates the incoherence of the denial of freewill, even when they seem to be pleading a certain pragmatism. Even when I state, “I cannot deny our freewill and, at the same time, treat others with the dignity that I believe is inherent in them. This would place me in conflict,” the pragmatic concerns are overshadowed by the logical. “Devices” are entitled to be treated with dignity. When I do treat them with dignity, I am violating my very beliefs about them – that they are mere machines.

  83. Mann'sWord:

    "Broken record" means that you keep repeating the same point again and again no matter how often it has been addressed. This has nothing what-so-ever to do with the question whether you would be able to do anything else if the universe were to be rewound and started again five seconds before the last time you did it or not, so your rhetorical question is at most testament to your complete failure to understand philosophical materialism. Perhaps records were before your time; the phrase refers to the fact that the old gramophone records could be damaged in a way that the record player would always skip back to the previous groove, thus repeating the same part of a song ad infinitum.

    No, your arguments demonstrate nothing of the kind. There is no reason, for example, to assume that denial of free will is only possible with free will. Even if I could only make one possible decision at any given moment in my life, the decision, in this case to state "there is no free will", could still be entirely correct. There is also no reason to treat other people badly just because they do not have a magic component that allows them to make decisions independently of the laws of physics (however that would be imagined to work, technically); they are still feeling, sentient beings that suffer more than a washing machine if you mistreat them. (Oh, but of course, quality of life is a criterion that you consider evil, I forgot. Also, this is definitely a consequentialist argument, not one that addresses the truth value of the proposition.) And why you think that not having free will means that you have been duped (eh?) about your experiences is quite nebulous - there is simply no connection. So, no. Repeated affirmation of your opinion does not make it any more plausible, sorry.

  84. Daniel Mann seems to be just another Christian writer who tries to argue for the existence of God by declaring that various things can only exist if God exists. And these things include:

    - Truth
    - Logic
    - Morality
    - Free Will
    - Our Existence

    Perhaps Mann would like to add Full Sail Pale Ale to his list of evidences for God's reality?

  85. Round and round...

    Any of you guys who accept an unmitigated intention to argue rationally as the bottom-line, fundamental ground rule of this dialogue should all accept at this point that it is not about the coherency of the concept of free will, but rather whether faith that it is coherent is the same as coherency itself. On this basis, it must further be accepted that the latter view clearly implies that incoherence = coherence, thus departing from the most basic principle of philosophical thought: Rationality. If these things are not accepted, you can't reasonably hope to advance the dialogue in any meaningful way when arguments of this type (except replace "then" with "first") are accepted.

    I'm tempted to say to all of you, cut your losses and move on. That's by far the best gamble in terms of energy expenditure versus payoff. However, I actually do think the disconnect can be localized somewhat, which might stand some chance of at least partially bridging the gulf between worldviews characterized by rigorous rationality and selective rationality.

    If you who believe that the notion of free will as it is commonly understood is incoherent focus more on elucidating what a rational understanding of the concept includes, and a little less on what it excludes, you might get a step or two further into this kind of dialogue before triggering deeply embedded defensive protocols, at which point the amygdala takes over and subverts all neocortical activity for its own ends. It's probably too late for this conversation, but it may help in subsequent ones.

    Short of this, accept that faith in one thing is an explicit refusal to open-mindedly consider anything else, therefore precluding a rational discussion...and cut your losses.

  86. As a quick followup, I think it's important to remember in any conversation in which faith is invoked (not as a concept, but the actual item) that faith and certainty are identical - they are, in fact, the same thing - and that thing is an emotional experience, not a rational one. So tailor your approach accordingly.

  87. perspicio:

    Yes, this is kind of why I entered the discussion with the disclaimer that it probably useless to discuss with a believer anyway...

  88. Mintman,

    Useless only if changing someone's mind or learning something new are your only goals. If practicing your skills as a wordsmith or entertaining those on the sidelines are also goals, then it's not a total loss.

    Personally, I have a lot of respect for the way you almost unwaveringly press forward on rational grounds alone. Me, once I know for certain that I'm trying to trump emotionally-based denial with reason, I'm much more prone to shift tactics and make a sport of it instead - sticking to a rational core, but employing more stylistic flourishes (wit/snark). I've finally come around to (mostly) accepting that this is probably not very helpful in the long run, however, since it spurs defensiveness instead of eroding it. Sometimes it's very hard to resist, though, but I've done my best to dial it back in no small part because of observing the way you, Massimo, and others here keep your cool and stick to making solid, unembellished arguments.

    So lay on, MacDuff!

  89. Gentleman,

    I’m truly sorry that you’ve rejected the logic of my argumentation. Sadly, this means that I must leave you to your own “devices,” in a world made up of nothing more than molecules-in-motion. However, I must ask you one last departing question: “If all you are is the sum total of electro-chemical reactions or molecules-in-motion, how can this possibly account for logic and rationality you so readily appropriate for yourselves alone? In such a world of constant change, how do you account for our unchanging standards of rationality and logic?”

    Please do not answer, “I don’t know!” That’s just not acceptable. Instead, such “agnosticism” demonstrates once again that your paradigm is too limited to account for the full range of reality. You might instead consider that this reality, in which we have our being, might be far more glorious than you suppose.

  90. "If all you are is the sum total of electro-chemical reactions or molecules-in-motion"

    Oh good grief. Look into the concept of emergence. That's like saying "nuts and bolts and fiberglass can't fly, so planes can't fly."

    Yes my brain is three pounds of meat. But it can reason. There is no contradiction there.

  91. Hey Daniel, let me teaching you something about maturity...

    When you inform those whom you have been arguing with that you can no longer argue with them, do not leave with parting shots. Just say you can't argue with them anymore and leave it at that.

  92. Rob Baird:

    Hey, great example, much more concise and illustrative than when I laboriously tried to make the same point with a computer! Have to remember that for the future.

  93. By chance, searching for something completely different, I found this:


    Most of the quite lengthy text will be relevant only to Mann'sWord, but about 3/4 down there is a treatment of free will that seems highly relevant to this discussion and is probably interesting to some of you.

  94. (oops, a typo in the code of my "tutorial", so deleted the previous version and resubmitting corrected)

    I’m truly sorry that you’ve rejected the logic of my argumentation

    Logic? Hm, therein lies the problem... Lack of logic.

    Blue Ridge,

    The "a" tag (I'm omitting the angle brackets otherwise the code gets parsed and does not show, so I'll write [o] for when you should put < and [c] for when you should put >) works like this:
    [o]a href="http://theURL"[c]

    Followed by the piece of text you want to appear as link, followed by

    So, if you enter:
    [o]a href="http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com"[c]Massimo Pigliucci's blog[o]/a[c]

    You will get the following:
    Massimo Pigliucci's blog

    One way to see how these things are constructed is to right-click on the page and select "View Page Source" (in Firefox; will be slightly different in other browsers).

  95. did I not understand it correctly that the randomness of quantum physics breaks down at the larger scales that are relevant here?

    I'm not a physicist (a biologist), but since no one has jumped in for that, I'll give it my best shot based on my limited understanding. After all, as Feynman supposedly said (and I paraphrase), if you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics. Or something like that, too lazy to google it. :-)

    Yes, the randomness does not show at the higher levels, it all becomes statistics -- temperature (the average motion of particles) being the one we see every day, for example. Some particles will be much "hotter" (fast), other one much "cooler" (slow), but only the average matters in the macroscopic world.

    BUT, and here I'm on less sure territory, that does not mean that the randomness can not influence the higher levels, I think. I understood it that way when I read Ilya Prigogine's "The end of certainty", plus books on chaos. As Massimo mentioned, chaotic systems (which seems to be most of nature) are very sensitive to initial conditions.

    As an illustration, one example I sort of remember from a book (?) was about the computer simulation of a mechanical toy (sort of like those balls that hit each other, but more complex). If you start the simulation with exactly the same parameters, the toy does exactly the same motions from beginning to end. No surprise there, specially it being a computer simulation. Now, if you introduce a tiny perturbation -- I think it was the equivalent of gravitational influence of a rain drop 50 m away, but have to find the actual text to confirm -- the simulation changes. For quite a while, it seem to be exactly as before, at least to the eye. But as more cycles of the toy's operation pass, differences start being apparent. After much more time, you can't quite match the first simulation and the perturbed one anymore.

    At least that's what I understood and remember; have to reread those three or four books on chaos and complexity I have here to clarify...

    Now, how would that impact the brain's functioning, in particular the freedom of the will? Well, speculating even more wildly here, I'd say that not in a way that is relevant to our F-word (the F-word being "freewill", heh) discussion here. As I said, the tiny perturbation takes a while to propagate in the system enough to make a difference in its behavior (because it is such a tiny force, as we assume a quantum fluctuation would be). So, if you told me to choose right now between chocolate and strawberry ice-cream, any quantum fluctuations happening in my brain would not have an effect in "freeing" my decision. Fluctuations that happened months ago, say, COULD have had an effect though. But a random effect. I would, some 90% percent of the time, choose chocolate (100% if it's mint chocolate chip, heh), but sometimes I might feel like strawberry. I'm not adventurous when it comes to food, so if it was a strange fruit flavor I might never choose it. But the fluctuations might "make me do it" sometimes (and astonish my girlfriend in the process), who knows. :-)

    What such fluctuations do? Well, such a fluctuation might just cause a tiny local temperature change that has no major consequence. Or it might strike a radioactive atom that was hanging around and make it decay, generating higher energy particles that could break my p53 gene and be responsible for a brain tumor twenty years down the road. Or the fluctuation might interfere with an ion channel in a neuron's membrane, delaying (or anticipating) a firing by a few milliseconds, thus starting a neuronal firing sequence that, added to my (and the universe's) whole previous history, will make me want to take a bicycle ride on a Sunday afternoon next March.

    So, in my highly speculative scenario, I'd say that while quantum effects make the future unpredictable they do not really make our will free in any meaningful way.

  96. This comment has been removed by the author.

  97. I think Mann'sWorld is Massimo in disguise spurring everyone on....

  98. oh, the ultimate conspiracy theory... ;-)

  99. Derek,

    You've deeply wounded the two of us!

  100. "...good enough for this particular non-dualist, non-mystically inclined human being."

    Boring... Might as well say "declined human being" to so easily surrender the countless dimensions available in favor of a simplistic dogmatic rationalism.

    Go ask Alice, I think she'll know.
    Q. - "Am I totally insane?"
    A. - "Why yes, but all of the very best people are."

    The best way to stretch a brain is to twist it!


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