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, June 16, 2011

Podcast Double-Teaser: The science and philosophy of free will AND Q&A with Julia and Massimo

by Massimo Pigliucci
Time for another couple of episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast. In the first we are going to tackle the never ending debates about free will, with a couple of twists. We will begin by examining the concept of free will from the standard philosophical perspective, then ask what — if anything — modern neuroscience can tell us about it, and come back to the interface between philosophy and science to explore how the two approaches may complement each other.
David Hume famously defined free will as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will,” i.e. free will is the ability to act according to our considerate desires, or as Timothy O’Connor put it: “the ability to select a course of action as a means of fulfilling some desire.”
The main problem facing philosophical discussions of free will is the issue of determinism. The crucial question is: if everything that happens in the universe is the result of causal necessary relations (e.g., the laws of physics), then how can one have a “free” will in the sense of a decision making mechanism that is independent of both external (e.g., environmental) and internal (e.g., one’s genetic makeup) influences? There are essentially three types of answers to this issue, which divide philosophers into compatibilists, “libertarian” incompatibilists, and deterministic incompatibilists. We will explore all three during the episode.
It also turns out that there are several conceptions of volition that can be investigated neurobiologically. Specifically, neurobiologists distinguish among at least the following five possibilities: 1) free will as initiation of motor activity, as in Benjamin Libet’s famous experiment (more during the podcast); 2) as “executive control,” Libet’s own idea that we still have veto power over our unconscious decisions; 3) as a feeling of ownership, which turns out to have its own distinctive neurological basis; 4) as intention, which philosophers think of as a representational stage between deliberation and action (although according to some, intentions may be unconscious); and finally 5) as decision making, which can be a long process that may in fact take hours or days, depending on its object. This situation may reflect the very real possibility that “free will” isn’t a unitary phenomenon after all, but a broad label that we apply to a set of disparate things that the brain does.
In the second episode, Julia and I will do what we like to do from time to time: simply take your questions and turn them into a lively open ended discussion between friends. So, fire away your suggestions for topics...


  1. Most explanations of determinism I've heard or read sound like there must be some kind of external metaphysical force involved or make us all sound schizophrenic. Therefore, I have trouble buying it. I look forward to your discussion of it, though.

  2. For Q&A section:
    Is it possible to create consistent and "practically working" axiomatic theory of ethics or is it doomed for some reason of incompleteness as all encompassing axiomatic theory of logic? How much developed this field of phylosophy? How about exceptionalism, when we regard some problems (human exceptionalism in vegetarian/omnivory disscusions; privileges toward some human groups over others (and/or developmental stages of human beeings))? In other words, how we should cope with variation in differences of important atributes? Is it possible to draw the line or is it always free parameter? Maybe we need a science to find effective variables to formulate those axioms of ethics which would be maximally consistent in practice?

  3. Q&A
    1) Recently I started reading Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" and listening to the Philosophy Bites podcast. Both present contrasting views. The former presents philosophical ideas from an analytic perspective, and the latter (generally speaking) from the continental tradition. What are your thoughts on the merits and demerits of both traditions?
    Free Will
    2) The free will argument has always sounded muddleheaded to me. We all have a will which is not determined by environment, biology, or beliefs. How can a desire "incline without necessitate"? How can one person's desire be any different from another persons, if that desire is not shaped by our experiences in the world?
    3) A number of friends have suggested the idea that Machiavelli's "The Prince" is actually a political satire and was not meant to be taken seriously. Is there any truth to this claim?

    Thanks Julia and Massimo for all the hard work you guys put into the podcast and your blog posts!

  4. I would think that philosophical reflection (from Gautama, to Hume, to Nietzsche, to Leiter and Knobe) and cognitive science/neuroscience both might, rather than solve, dissolve, the debate.

    I think the notions of "will", "self" and "action" must be examined before discussion of free will even makes sense. My personal views are that because the self and the will are such nebulous ideas, basically fictions, that free will is also an incoherent concept.

  5. "Free" will is essentially the ability to base decisions on your own predictive selections and assessments as to the best of several options available that you will then be relatively freed from previously directed cause to re-assess and choose from and among.
    Illusory or not, you will have been caused to be the maker of the choice rather than the conduit of some prior makers choosing.

  6. On free will:
    Does the metaphysical question of free will override all other considerations? I've been in discussions about the topic with people who no matter what will do a "retreat to metaphysics" and talk of the incompatibility meaning no ultimate responsibility. Does the fact that we cannot do otherwise override that we can think and act upon scenarios, ideals, and potential outcomes?

  7. When does it make sense to speak of reason and emotion as conflicting forces, and when does it not?

  8. What is wrong with the I, Mudd and I, Robot (movie) scenarios, where human being's worse impulses are kept in check by dispassionate machines, considering that every day we demonstrate how very incapable we are of taking care of ourselves, our planet, and our biosphere? Is it important for for human beings to be able to make bad (i.e. destructive) decisions and if so why?

  9. Obviously, one important implication of a theory for "free will" is that on morally relevant decisions and law-making. Even if a compatibilistic stand can be held, how should we face borderline conditions, such as humans with neurological diseases (e.g. prefronal cortex damage) wich evidently influence decision-making (cf. Fineas Gage case). Of course, these conditions show us that the brain indeed plays a major role in the spatiotemporal contigency-localization and processing events that we call decisions or free-will.

  10. Discussions of freewill/determinism routinely focus on the moral responsibility issue, and omit consideration of the interesting "determinism is self-refuting/self-defeating" claims. Eg.see Determinism's Dilemma, James N. Jordan, Review of Metaphysics, Sept. 1969.

  11. I think that libertarians are referring to *something* when they use "free will". It's just something that doesn't exist. Like unicorns, or the bibilical Triune God.

    A definition of free will:

    "The ability to make choices that are neither random nor caused."

    Now, obviously there is no such ability, since "random" and "caused" exhaust the possibilities.

    But some people believe in the existence of such an ability anyway.

    Why? Well...either there's a reason that they do, or there isn't...

    Applying this:

    Either there is a reason for what I choose to do, or there isn't.

    If there is a reason, then the reason determined the choice. No free will.

    If there is no reason, then the choice was random. No free will.

    I don't see a third option.

    Do you?

  12. free will
    the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one's own discretion.

    Of course you're free to make up your own definition if necessary.

  13. "the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate"

    So this amounts to the claim that your actions aren't "caused" by forces external to "you".


    "the ability to act at one's own discretion"

    This is trying avoid the alternative that one's actions are random.

    But what does "at one's own discretion" mean?

    Why does your "discretion" result in you to doing A instead of B?

    If you provide a mechanism by which discretion accounts for the difference, then you're back to the choice being "determined" by the mechanism.

    If there you discretion doesn't reduce to any such mechanism...if your discretion "just does" cause you to choose A instead of B, how is that different from randomly choosing A instead of B?

  14. For the Q&A
    1- Does modern technology impact in how do we think about different issues? Or it is just an issue of how easy it is to get information? One of the ways that this has been discussed in the past is the famous "Is Google making us stupid?". The problem is most of the time it has been approached from a cognitive science perspective, not from a philosophical perspective (for example Does having more information about a topic always make us better thinkers about that, or it only pushes us towards the consensus view?)
    2- Specific minorities philosophy (feminist, hispanic, african-american, etc): What are the benefits from it (besides being politically correct) and how do we avoid from falling into the "if you criticize my position you clearly are against my X minority, therefore you are a horrible human, therefore your argument is invalid" problem. Also how do we avoid the ad infinitum regression from subdividing it (i.e. Yeah, I am studying the liberal hispanic female high socioeconomic class, eastern background, philosophy of quantum electrodynamics)
    3- Philosophy of disease: How do you decide that X is a disease, even more when X is very frequent in society, and how does this distorts our view of the condition (very important in this day and age with things like obesity and high functioning Asperger syndrome)

    I suppose that some of these topics are more of a whole episode thing, but it would be great to hear you discuss them.

  15. Per Dan Dennett, and jumping past him, logically, as Daniel Wegner and others have done, ...

    If there's no Cartesian meaner, there's no Cartesian free willer.

    Now, sub/semi-conscious subselves may have a sub/semi-conscious analogue to "free will," but that's a different critter.

  16. >If you provide a mechanism by which discretion accounts for the difference, then you're back to the choice being "determined" by the mechanism.<

    Except that now its your mechanism.
    Your turn in the choice making barrel.

  17. In the teaser above there was this line: "The main problem facing philosophical discussions of free will is the issue of determinism"

    This certainly seems like a powerful refutation of free will, but along the lines of what Allen was saying above, indeterminism itself does not bestow free will on an agent. In fact, I think that one of the problems with the free will debate is that we focus on the wrong locus of evaluation. What is consciousness? What is the self? If persons have a real ontological nature, it seems to me that this is where we need to evaluate the free will question, as opposed to arguments from physics or biology.

    But more fundamentally, I'm of the opinion that the entire debate surrounding free will is something of a red herring. If it's a matter of being able to find meaning in our lives, then what is necessary is not proving or disproving free will, but rather, being able to provide justification for the fact that there is meaning to our choices, behaviour, and interactions regardless of underlying causal nature of those actions.

    If the debate is about being able to hold people responsible for their actions, then again, what we need is not to prove or disprove free will, but to have a conversation about the nature of responsibility, about how our knowledge of causation and intention should inform how we interact with each other, and the kinds of systems we set up in society. What is the purpose of holding someone responsible for their actions? Assigning praise, encouraging more of the same behaviour in the future, and instilling a feeling of self worth in the case of positive actions? Assigning blame, preventing similar future behaviours, helping people change, etc...in the case of negative actions? If anything like this is true, then the existence of free will not only isn't necessary to provide justification for aspects our legal and justice systems, but it wouldn't be sufficient even if it was.

    If we want to draw a line in the sand and label anything past it free will, I'm okay with that, as long as we do so with full knowledge of the relevance of what we're discussing, why the label is important, and what we do with it in the future.

  18. Baron P said:
    "Except that now its your mechanism."
    If it is our "mechanism", then, it appears that any explanation of "choice making" by this mechanism could be described in terms of cause and effect, if we had the scientific knowledge to enable us to do so. So, we are still talking about a deterministic description of our so called "choices".

  19. >So, we are still talking about a deterministic description of our so called "choices".<

    So what? Is it your argument that regardless of the evolution of our functional apparatus, there was never any need to have or use it to maintain our status as an evolutionary success?

  20. Baron P
    As you use the word 'purpose', does it have a different meaning than the word 'function'?

  21. Ask Greg, he's the only one so far that's mentioned purpose on this thread. And done so appropriately as well.

  22. Baron P
    You used the word 'functional'. I was wondering if what you meant by 'functional' in this context.I was trying to clarify if 'functional' is interchangeable with 'purposeful'? How is 'functional' different from 'purposeful'?
    Thanks ahead for any clarification.

  23. (typo correction)
    Baron P
    You used the word 'functional'. I was wondering what you meant by 'functional' in this context.I was trying to clarify if 'functional' is interchangeable with 'purposeful'? How is 'functional' different from 'purposeful'?
    Thanks ahead for any clarification.

  24. DJD, it's worth pointing out that you seem to use function/functional and purpose/purposeful interchangeably. I don't think that's a good idea.

    I think there are ways in which function and purpose can mean the same thing, while functional and purposeful can mean very different things.

    And you might get drastically different answers depending on what Baron interprets your question as.

  25. Greg
    Thank you for your suggestion. I would be happy if Baron helps me to understand if the word 'function' and the word 'purpose' are interchangeable when he uses the word 'function', or if not, what he sees as the difference between the two. He may be reluctant or unable to do so.....but I hope he gives it a try.

  26. Sorry DJD but I can't entrust you with that information.

  27. Baron
    I think I know why. Clarity is your enemy.

  28. DJD,
    Your obviously ulterior motives are my enemy. Your questions are also dumb.

  29. Baron P
    What do you believe are my ulterior motives?
    Why are they your enemy?
    What is it about my questions that are dumb?

  30. >What is it about my questions that are dumb?<

    They seem to infinitely regress.

  31. Baron P
    What do you believe are my ulterior motives?
    Why are they your enemy?

  32. Ulterior means अपर in sanskrit.

  33. Baron P
    I admire your intelligence and intellectual honesty.

  34. I was reading over my post from above and noticed that I said the following: "If persons have a real ontological nature, it seems to me that this is where we need to evaluate the free will question, as opposed to arguments from physics or biology."

    That might give a slightly mistaken impression of what I was trying to get across. My point is not that facts about the constraining character of physical law is unimportant for evaluating the free will question, understanding what the constraints and underlying causes of human behavior are, are integral to issues of free will. But rather, I was just pointing out that simply pointing to the laws of physics and saying, "see, no free will there", is imo, not enough to end the entire free will debate. (even though in the end I come down on the no free will side)

  35. If one person contends that you cannot 'prove' that there are ferries in the corner....and another contends that you cannot 'prove' that there are not....and neither can convince the other....is it not time to re-examine the concept of "prove" in this and similar contexts?

  36. The burden of proof lies on the one who claims he doesn't have it to prove it.

  37. The same applies to fairies.....

  38. Thats why they build their own boats.

  39. Baron
    The one who asks for 'proof' should give insight to the concept of 'proof' or 'prove'....as he is using the term.

  40. That's likely why some of us agreed beforehand to the common use of dictionaries.

  41. Baron P
    Words have different meanings in different contexts. Words don't mean.....people mean things with words....Speakers should simply try to clarify what they are saying....if their goal is to be clearly understood.

  42. DJD
    Then perhaps you'll need to carry a sign that clearly signifies your level of understanding.

  43. Baron P
    I have have always been attracted to the philosophers of language that believed that clarification was the most important job (perhaps only job) of modern day philosophy. Other than clearing up the confusions caused by the use and misuse of language, everything else in question can be assigned to one discipline or another of science. But, if you are convinced that a good dictionary is enough....then we have a differing views about language.

  44. Baron P
    What part or parts of my post did you find to be richtig ?

  45. If Global Warming is statistically correlated with the rise of sea levels and obesity, how do we tell that the correlation with obesity is probably spurious?
    If the answer is knowing a mechanism, what does that really mean? Reducing to simpler phenomena?
    If the answer is that fluctuations in the trend provide controls, what kind of fluctuations are needed and how many?

  46. What's a disease and what's normal diversity?
    Disliking peanuts is normal, a severe peanut allergy is a disease, and a severe reaction to cyanide is normal.
    Are delusions of grandeur a mental illness if the person is happy and doesn't break any laws?
    There are activists who characterize various diseases as diversity: the Autism Rights (or "Neurodiversity") Movement, "Pro-ana" groups promoting anorexia, NAMBLA promoting pedophilia, Deaf activists opposing cochlear implants as a threat to "Deaf culture," etc.

  47. Does Utilitarianism justify trial by public opinion?
    Punishing someone has a deterrent effect if the public thinks that person is guilty, whether or not he or she really is guilty. Does that justify punishing an innocent person if it deters others from commiting crimes?

  48. I see Yannis already asked about disease. A nice example of a grey area is lactose intolerance, which affects 5% of Swedes and 95% of the population in China, where lactose intolerance is the norm and lactase persistence is the aberration, albeit a positive one.

    Since Yannis covered disease, I'll ask a new question: What are the worst or most common mistakes or fallacies made by self-professed skeptics and rationalists?

  49. Does counterfactual history assume that things like decision making and the weather are uncaused?
    Does the butterfly effect work backwards in time?
    Take the question, "What would've happened had a certain butterfly flapped its wings," and then ask what would've caused it to flap its wings. Would all of history leading up to that point have to change for the butterfly to flap its wings?


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