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.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Some observations on the “free will” wars

by Ian Pollock


It has been interesting to view the exchanges on free will (more neutrally, volition) between Massimo, Jerry Coyne, and the readers of both blogs. I felt like chiming in when I read this in Massimo’s latest sortie:

“...And there are very decent philosophical arguments against determinism (and reductionism, which is also implied by this sort of claim)”
This fits in with my impression that many see incompatibilist determinism a la Jerry Coyne as either “reductionism gone mad,” or, putting a positive spin on it, the logical consequence of reductionism applied to human brains.

I confess myself perplexed by this, because it seems to me that the intuitions driving incompatibilism stem from absent or insufficiently applied reductionism. Let me try to explain.

Let’s start with Jerry’s “practical test” of free will:
If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.
To see the problem with this test, suppose we are interested in a different question: whether Alice loves Bob. I propose as a practical test of this proposition: “What you need to do is take a look at Alice’s brain and see if areas associated with Bob display amorous patterns of neural firing.”

The obvious main problem with my “practical test” of love is that although it’s couched in sciencey language, the entire question of whether Alice loves Bob has been transfered to the word “amorous,” which has still not been reduced to something well-defined and testable. Explanatorily, we are no better off than we were before. Of course, the mistake in my test is trivially easy to see, but the mistake in Jerry’s test of free will is almost as obvious. “Choice” and “free will” and “volition” are damn near synonyms, so although a dictionary may reference “choice” in its definition of “free will,” a scientific test should never do such a thing. Likewise, "could" is a concept at the very heart of the matter! Jerry’s test of free will — “you could have chosen differently” — is not nearly reductionist enough.*

So how would I tackle the issue of free will/volition?

Suppose I am driving along an undivided highway when the stray thought comes into my head that I could steer into the opposing lane, resulting in a horrible, deadly accident.

Of course, I don’t do so, because... well, I like living and I don’t much want to kill others, either. And I just washed my car. But I could have done it....

Wait, was I right to say that I could have done it?

Yes and no. As we have seen, the pivotal word in that sentence is “could,” and “could” has at least two meanings that are relevant to the question of free will.

Meaning #1 maps physical possibility, and in this case returns the clear answer “No, the physical state of the universe was such that you could not have steered into oncoming traffic, as evidenced by the fact that you did not, in fact, do so. QED.” Jerry sees this clearly, and I have absolutely no argument with him.

Meaning #2 of “could” maps counterfactual statements. To say that you “could” have done something in this sense is (roughly) to say that IF circumstances had been otherwise, a different outcome would have resulted. Meaning #2 returns the answer “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic, if you had wanted to.”

Meaning #2 is what people actually mean by “could,” most of the time.

If you’ve been sleeping through this post, pay attention now, because the entire click of compatibilism lies in this realization.

Proposition #1: “No, the state of the universe was such that it was physically impossible for you to have steered into oncoming traffic.”

Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if you had wanted to).”

These two propositions are both true in my example. THAT is the essence of compatibilism.

Also note the very important fact that “wanting to” corresponds to a different physical state than “not wanting to.”

These propositions look incompatible because people (especially incompatibilists!) have an annoying tendency to forget about the implicit counterfactual “if” clause in proposition #2.**

Now we are in a position to see that incompatibilism is basically a huge equivocation fallacy. The incompatibilists prove Proposition #1, then assume that therefore, Proposition #2 is proven false. But this does not follow.

Sadly, those who wish to defend free will/volition seem tempted to deny Proposition #1, often by arguing against determinism and reductionism in very implausible ways. I think this is crazy, but I am not going to argue with them here, in the interests of maintaining a coherent stream of thought.

The main point I want to make is that incompatibilist determinists like Jerry are in some sense still in thrall to the dualistic ideas of their culture, although they have explicitly rejected them.

Dan Dennett is fond of repeating this great quote from Lee Siegel, who wrote a book on Indian street magic.
"I'm writing a book on magic," I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By 'real magic' people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. "No," I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic." Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.
Now consider this passage from Jerry Coyne’s USA Today article:
The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we're characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics. Most people find that idea intolerable, so powerful is our illusion that we really do make choices. (my emphasis).
But um, Jerry, we do actually make choices, right? Don’t we? I mean, not in some amazingly deep philosophically or morally fraught sense of choice, as in “But did Hitler really have a choice to not be a monster?”, but in a basic, boring, everyday sense, as in “Do you want Froot Loops or muesli?” Surely you talk this way too, when you go home?

I think Jerry would concede that we do make such choices, but insist that they aren’t “real” choices. Well, what is a “real” choice as distinct from an unreal one? Like in the case of magic, it would appear that according to Jerry and other incompatibilists, “real choice” refers to the choices that are not real (i.e., don’t actually happen because they require supernatural powers), while the choice that is real — that can, y’know, actually be done — is not. real. choice.

And yet I would bet a large sum of money that Jerry et al. are perfectly willing to use the language of choice in their daily lives, as soon as they’ve forgotten about the day’s blogo-philosophizing. This is not just because choice is a powerful illusion (which would presumbably be their preferred rationalization) — it’s because the concept of “choice” cuts reality at the joints. Choice is one of the most important things that the human brain does; arguably, the brain’s ability to model the world and choose from alternative actions IS its survival value.

A half-reductionist would look at the concept of choice, experience the usual dualistic intuitions about it, then conclude that since dualism is false, choice must be an illusion. Hence the saying (which I just invented): a little bit of reductionism is a dangerous thing.

A good reductionist would look at this incredibly useful concept of “choice” and then try to figure out how it fits into the determined physical universe. Eventually, they would conclude that choice is a physical process like eating or breathing or thinking. As Gary Drescher says in the perfect expression of this insight:
Choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism... The objection "The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined" is as much a non sequitur as the objection "The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined."
One final note: I have tried to interpret Jerry’s opinions as faithfully as possible, but I hope he will pardon me and let me know if he feels I have put words into his mouth. In truth so much has been written on this topic recently that it gets hard to keep people's opinions straight!


* Unlike others, I have absolutely no problem with the fact that Jerry’s test would only be doable in principle, not in practice. Such thought experiments are extremely useful for all sorts of things.

** Of course, the counterfactual “if” can reference lots of different factors besides the desires of the agent. But this example does a nice job of showing that what prevents you from doing X is not necessarily a pernicious outside influence.


  1. Ian: Well done. I think your dichotomy (Props. 1 & 2) and your (real vs. not-real magic) analogy are both spot on.

    That said:

    Unlike others, I have absolutely no problem with the fact that Jerry’s test would only be doable in principle, not in practice. Such thought experiments are extremely useful for all sorts of things.

    Yes, but does Coyne admit that he's engaged in a thought experiment (as opposed to reporting scientifically well-established facts)? I think that was at least one of Massimo's major complaints (if not the main one).

    Sadly, those who wish to defend free will/volition seem tempted to deny Proposition #1, often by arguing against determinism and reductionism in very implausible ways. I think this is crazy...

    I think there are legitimate reasons to question (if not doubt) the veracity of determinism (D) and reductionism (R) (as Massimo has explained or alluded in recent posts here). But I agree with you here insofar as such doubts are not necessarily much help in delivering a free will that's "worth wanting" (to paraphrase Dennett), whereas D&R aren't necessarily the natural enemies of the such (as compatibilists, including Dennett, typically argue).

    1. "Yes, but does Coyne admit that he's engaged in a thought experiment (as opposed to reporting scientifically well-established facts)? I think that was at least one of Massimo's major complaints..."

      If Coyne was pretending that his thought experiment was somehow scientific but not philosophical, then yes, I agree with you & Massimo that he was kidding himself.

      "I think there are legitimate reasons to question (if not doubt) the veracity of determinism (D) and reductionism (R)."

      Right, and we've already had some good discussion on the reasons to question determinism. I'm willing to concede that it isn't exactly *obvious* determinism is true.

      Reductionism, however... Well, I shall have to do another post on that, I think. Suffice it to say that every 'critique of reductionism' that I've seen ends up imploding due to huge confusions between ontology & epistemology.

    2. Suffice it to say that every 'critique of reductionism' that I've seen...

      Fair enough.

      Just to be clear (and because you also alluded to Massimo's recent post on determinism), I have in mind with respect to reductionism this recent (parenthetical) statement by Massimo:

      (Interestingly, very few readers took me up on another possibility: that of truly emergent properties, which is yet another question that at the moment — and perhaps permanently — cannot be resolved by science. We know that there are emergent properties, but we don’t know if they appear to be so because of our epistemic limitations or because they truly do represent novel behaviors of matter when certain complexity and organizational conditions are met.)

      So, please, by all means feel free to take him up on it. I, for one, plead agnostic on the matter (which appears to be Massimo's stance, as well), but I'm still open to persuasion.

    3. Or, as I put it, "The brain uses, or in fact is, a technology sufficiently advanced to appear as magic(Arthur C. Clarke).

  2. Great post! And one of the best quotes from "Good and Real" :-) However, perhaps you can clarify one point:

    A standard definition of choice is the process of selecting an action among possible actions. It can be described in algorithmic terms (classically is the maximization of expected utility) and, at least in its basic form, does not need volition: a thermostat is able to make a boolean choice but surely lacks any type of volition, whatever the definition we choose to agree (despite the fact that it may even be able to satisfy Preposition #2 in certain conditions).

    But from your post, it seems you use the word differently, as it is 'damn near synonym' of volition. What is lacking from my previous definition?


    1. Thanks! As I said to Sharkey below, I'm thinking of choice as an activity carried out by an intelligent agent with a utility function. Choice by something like a thermostat, by the definition I'm using, I'd rather call "proto-choice" perhaps. But it sounds like we don't disagree about anything substantive.

    2. Ok, your meaning of choice is stronger and more relevant in this discussion. Let me use it herein.

      I've checked wikipedia and it says that volition "is the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action." This really seems a synonym of choice. And it seems imho to empty the discussion: people are able to choose -- which is orthogonal to determinism, we both seem to agree with Drescher -- and so, by definition, people have volition.

      This reminds me what E.T. Jaynes said about mixing the map and the territory (or epistemology and ontology) in the same discussion. Perhaps Coyne is talking about the world stuff (no volition among fermions and bosons) and Massimo and you are talking about the mind stuff (where we, choosing persons, exist). Do you think I'm (over-)oversimplifying?

      Anyway, we humans cannot help ourselves. We are constantly inserting meaning into the world stuff and into the mind stuff, and these meanings inevitably leak from both sides, which makes things much more confusing to discuss. But that's another story :-)

      A side note: when you say "Choice is one of the most important things that the human brain does" that choice also applies to mammals and perhaps other animals (octopuses, some clever birds...). All these animals have brains with the "ability to model the world and choose from alternative actions" and indeed these features give their bearers a strong survival value. I.e., this stuff is not exclusive of humans. Of course, this is no counter-argument: animals are able to make choices too, or so it seems. Do you agree that animals with enough cognitive complexity also have volition?

    3. >"This reminds me what E.T. Jaynes said about mixing the map and the territory (or epistemology and ontology) in the same discussion. Perhaps Coyne is talking about the world stuff (no volition among fermions and bosons) and Massimo and you are talking about the mind stuff (where we, choosing persons, exist). Do you think I'm (over-)oversimplifying?"

      Funny you should mention Jaynes, I just received his book (Probability Theory: The Logic of Science) on Amazon. I'm not sure I'm completely following you, although I consider the map-territory distinction crucial. I think you're asking whether this discussion on volition is about the map or the territory. I'd say it's *mostly* about the map - in particular about which concepts of choice are useful explanatorily and pragmatically for slicing up the territory. I don't think Jerry and I disagree wildly about any empirical matter here. However, I think Jerry sees it as being mostly about the territory - "particles don't choose, therefore assemblages of particles don't choose."

      >"Do you agree that animals with enough cognitive complexity also have volition?"

      Yes, I absolutely think that non-human animals display volition, to varying degrees.

    4. Ian quoting Jerry: "particles don't choose, therefore assemblages of particles don't choose."

      If we cannot predict the position of an electron (Heisenberg), can the the position of electron be said to be determined? In this sense, the particle CAN choose!

      Also, "assemblages" sometimes have emergent properties
      that the reductionist subsets do not -- e.g. a critical mass of U235 explodes while a sub-critical mass does not.

  3. Ian (quoting Drescher):

    > Choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism... The objection "The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined" is as much a non sequitur as the objection "The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined."

    I'm willing to accept that description of choice/volition, as long as you accept that, by the definition, a black-box thermostat has volition. After all, it makes a choice whether or not to heat the house every time it observes a temperature change. That is, it follows a mechanical (and deterministic) process to decide between two behavioural outcomes based upon external stimuli and an internal state.

    1. I don't have a perfect definition of choice, but I would probably want to throw in some clauses about (1) having an internal model of the world, and (2) having (something akin to) a utility function.

      In other words, "follow[ing] a mechanical (and deterministic) process to decide between two behavioural outcomes based upon external stimuli and an internal state" is necessary but not sufficient.

    2. Sharkey you're asserting that choice should just be considered, "a mechanical (and deterministic) process to decide between two behavioral outcomes based upon external stimuli and an internal state." My question is WHY? That is not the way the term choice is usually used (We don't normally ascribe volition to thermostats) and the idea that we can't distinguish between extremely simple and extremely complex system that have 'two behavioural outcomes based upon external stimuli and an internal state' is absurd.

      First off if you want to argue that both brains and thermostats are just are the same type of system (implying that the complexity of a system is irrelevant factor in determining its properties)it seems like you would have to either 1) deny that people in fact have experiences, which I assume you could not honestly do; 2) subscribe to panpsychism and argue that there is something it is like to be a thermostat. 3) subscribe to dualism and claim that the fact that people have experiences is not tied to any physical fact of reality.

      If you don't want to subscribe to either of these position i.e. you want to argue there is something it is like to exist as human with a brain, but not something it is is like to be a thermostat, you would have to acknowledged a fundamental difference exits between highly complex physical systems and simple physical systems. If you acknowledge this distinction it seem strange to argue that the term "choice" should rightly be applicable to all system just because they both happen to be governed by physical laws, which is to say that we should not use terminology that distinguishes between system based on complexity.

    3. Brandon A:

      I was merely taking Ian's definition at face value and taking it to the logical conclusion. Nowhere did I say that humans and thermostats are the same; I merely pointed out his definition of 'choice' (or 'volition', or whatever) is sufficiently broad to encompass both people and houseware.

      Further, there are other options than the 3 you've presented. I'm unclear on your definition of 'experience', so I can't comment specifically, but I have the feeling you ascribe significance to the term that I'm not understanding. In the sense that experience is "practical contact with and observation of facts or events", I think it's clear that both people and thermostats have 'experiences'. You're probably referring to 'qualia', which I find a vague and undefined concept, with more akin to vitalism than anything useful.

    4. Except that everyone experiences 'qualia' and it can't be denied that they're real.
      Feeling happy is a quale.

      It is a central concept to any discussion of mind and self, so I don't see how you can dismiss it so blithely. I suspect that this is a case of a hard determinist refusing to recognize a phenomenon, or event, that they can't explain physically.
      It is much easier to pretend something isn't important than to deal with it because it poses difficulties, especially difficulties that may undermine your position.

    5. It can be denied. The eliminativist would deny it, as I think Daniel Dennett is. This would be a typical response to Mary's Room.

  4. Thanks for this very nice post. I could not have put it into such terms, but I too think along those lines.

    Coyne is trivially right in that if dualism is wrong, then there is indeed no dualist/libertarian free will, and he may well be right that dualist will is how the majority conceptualizes free will. Kind of like how he is right that the vast, vast majority of religious believers does not hold beliefs that are compatible with science, but that is another issue. But I think he is wrong in then simply concluding that therefore we should drop the term free will (or volition, or choice). I find it very useful to have a term for differentiating between giving somebody $50 because I want to give them a gift for their birthday and giving somebody $50 because they hold a gun to my head and demand it.

    On the other hand, I find Coyne's simplistic dismissal not nearly as infuriating as some arguments on the other side, especially those of the variants "if you are a determinist, why don't you just lie down and die" and "look: quantum!, so my mind gets to be independent from cause-and-effect" (and, it is implied, totally has dualist free will).

    1. "On the other hand, I find Coyne's simplistic dismissal not nearly as infuriating as some arguments on the other side, especially those of the variants "if you are a determinist, why don't you just lie down and die" and "look: quantum!, so my mind gets to be independent from cause-and-effect" (and, it is implied, totally has dualist free will)."

      Indeed they are infuriating, although I would argue that Coyne is playing right into the hands of sundry irrationalists here by making it seem that the standard rationalist position on free will is incompatibilist determinism (not to mention the moral nihilism he seems elsewhere to exhibit).

      If I were a person wholly new to the debate on free will, and I were faced with Jerry's false dichotomy between (a) throwing away the entire concept of choice as an "illusion," and (b) resorting to intuitive soul-talk... well, I know which way I would go.

    2. I would not say that he shows any moral nihilism; actually I kind of get the vibe that his public promotion of determinism is at least partly motivated by the idea that it would lessen the desire for punishment of criminals and increase the desire to help them and design circumstances so that people are less likely to become criminal.

    3. Ian - Respectfully, would you explain to me what is simplistic and infuriating about "if you are a determinist, why don't you just lie down and die" -- that quote is rather crudely put, but why doesn't it make sense to say, that if you have no control or choices to make, then there is no point in doing anything? If everything is determined, isn't everything unfolding as if you were watching a movie and you couldn't change the outcome?

      Also, while I don't believe quantum = free will, some quantum effects seem to demonstrate that the world is NOT completely deterministic. If you cannot predict where an electron is, or which slot a photon passes through in the double-slit experiment, how can you state with confidence that *everything* is deterministic? I don't claim QM proves free will, only that it disproves a theory of complete determinism.

      Perhaps I am just dull, but could you please enlarge upon these statements, rather than saying, "well, that's all rubbish".

    4. I cannot speak for Ian, but this is my own position here:

      The charge that determinists who do not despair and lie down to decompose are somehow inconsistent or hypocritical is nonsensical because (1) while they may intellectually conclude that everything is predetermined, they are not any more able to predict what the future will be like than non-determinists, and (2) their dying of despair in the face of their conclusion would be just as pre-determined as their shrugging and going on as before, and most of them know it, so they shrug and go on as before.

      As I implied above, I do not believe that we have any more free will than a chess computer, but still think that concept of free will is useful. Think of building a really fancy chess computer that is programmed to pursue two goals: priority 1, self-preservation, and priority 2, winning chess games. We will hopefully agree that this computer does not have any dualist free will; well, if that is so, I do not see how we can. Still, there is an important difference between playing a game with the computer and losing because it is free to follow goal #2, and playing the same game but winning because you have threatened the AI with destruction if it doesn't let you win.

      As for quantum, well, then we are agreed. The problem is that many people use the existence of randomness to reject determinism, and then jump to the unwarranted conclusion that this gives us dualist free will. That is nonsense, of course, because behaving randomly would be as far from dualist free will as not having any choice at all. Or in other words, merely proving the existence of randomness does not have any relevance whatsoever for the discussion about whether we have any free will of the sort that both Jerry Coyne and Ian Pollock reject. (Me too.)

    5. This is a really good synopsis, Alex. Free will is, indeed, useful for such social and complex entities as ourselves. As for random (I have a narrow frequency interpretation of random - ie it does not exist) or quantum indeterminacy, this only leads to indeterminacy and not free will, as you rightfully point out.

  5. I think the main problem in this discussion is that too often it is presented as "free will" (or "volition," pace Massimo) VERSUS "determinism," at least if we're looking at psychological determinism. (I'll have more to say about Coyne below.

    And again, to that "versus," having first seen the word in "Goedel, Escher, Bach," I say "MU." http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/01/mu-to-free-will.html

    Let's stop, stop, stop with the "versus."

    Volition and determinism are NOT two polarities. They're two ends of a continuum, and human actions usually fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

    Whether at the big picture level, or, that of individual actions, it's not free
    will VERSUS determinism at all. They are not two polarities with nothing in between.

    Instead, we're usually acting on a mix of more conscious choice and more constrained subconscious drives, with the breaking point, whether 75 percent free will/25 percent determinism, 40 percent free will/60 percent determinism,
    varying from situation to situation for a person AND varying from person to person in the same situation, too!

    Really, it's time to reframe this whole issue for our current era. And, in looking at both ends of the continuum, it's time to be more charitable to the different types of determinism that are out there.

    For example, I reject, overall, an update idea of Democritus' atomistic determinism, or some other "hard," physicalist determinism of the type of Coyne. That is, to riff on Dennett, "greedy reductionism." It's also as poor a framing of what all determinism actually involves as are traditional free will defenses that, whether religiously driven or not, focus on moral responsibility. But, per the examples I cited above about human nature, I have plenty of sympathy for a "softer" psychological determinism. And, if the likes of a Coyne can't reframe the determinist side, they ought to be "mu-ed" out of the discussion as much as free willers who, wittingly or not, rely in part on religious issues of guilt and responsibility.

    Sidebar ... Walter Kaufmann's "Beyond Guilt and Responsibility" has some very good reading here.

    1. Hm, I agree to "stop with the versus," but for different reasons than you. I consider a deterministic or at least *mostly* deterministic universe to be REQUISITE for volition, inasmuch as indeterminacy implies unpredictability, and unpredictability makes choice futile.

      If your decisions to e.g. not steer into oncoming traffic (determined by your preferences + your model of the world) are constantly overridden by cosmic rays, there isn't much point to deciding anything anymore. If they are only occasionally overridden by cosmic rays... well, in that case there is *some* point to deciding things, but less than there would be in a perfectly deterministic world.

  6. Too often do people forget that the whole reason the free will debate is important is because of its implications about moral responsibility, or, whether or not people deserve to be praised or punished for the choices they make. It seems to me that compatibilism does not get you moral responsibility, because whether or not I "wanted" to say, steer into oncoming traffic, was entirely dependent upon my genes and my environment, neither of which I chose. So the idea that anybody *deserves* to be punished or rewarded makes no sense in a deterministic universe, because the desires that determine people's choices are not chosen -- they are a matter of luck.

    1. Actually, I'll do you one better: nothing can possibly get you to moral desert in this libertarian sense. Consider the following.

      Suppose we postulate immaterial souls. Can they have moral desert? Well, does my soul have a causal history behind it (e.g., god made it on his great soul-lathe)? If so, we're just dealing with supernatural determinism - I didn't choose the content of my soul, so how can I be blamed for it?

      Similarly, suppose there is no causal history behind my soul - it just popped into being from nothingness. I still didn't choose its contents, so I can't be held responsible for it.

      Suppose I chose the contents of my soul. How would I do that, not already having a soul? Here things get a wee bit speculative; perhaps a theologian can stop by to add some clarity. Presumably my meta-soul would need to somehow bootstrap my soul into existence, without itself having a causal history...

      Suffice it to say, this effort quickly degenerates into conceptual absurdities.

      A more productive route might be to notice that actually, the causal story behind a decision matters very little for moral responsibility. Consider two murderers: murderer #1 is the usual sort of garden-variety murderer, but murderer #2 was created ex nihilo by the Laplacian Demon to be identical to murderer #1.

      Do they have different levels of responsibility for the crimes they commit? It seems obvious to me that they don't, being identical. Murderer #2 is just as immoral as murderer #1 (the Laplacian Demon is also to blame, but his blame doesn't subtract from murderer #1's, because blame is not a conserved quantity).

      It would appear that we assign moral responsibility in order to give people reasons to do some things and not do other things, and that we relieve people of moral responsibility, NOT for having a causal story behind their actions, but if and when their ability to respond to reasons *at all* is compromised.

      Roughly, we judge decision algorithms, not their histories.

    2. Ian, I think your argument for compatibilism in the main post is sound, but I don't think your argument here about souls, which implies that libertarianism is logically incoherent, is.

      Since I'm concerned here with logical coherence rather than physical possibility, I'll keep using the vocabulary of "souls".

      I think you get caught in the common trap of thinking of things as either deterministic or random. The whole point of talking about a free-willing soul is that even if it has a causal history, it is not subject to follow that causal history (including its own wants and desires). It can ignore it without being "caused" to do so. But neither is it random or based in luck. Whether it follows its causal history or not is based on a decision that itself is not determined by its causal history - but that doesn't mean it's random.

      While it's not immediately clear that non-random, non-determined things are logically possible, I maintain there's no argument that has been presented to demonstrate why they're not possible. Rather, most attacks on notions of self-determination (e.g. by Galen Strawson) frame notions of self-determination that are really causal, so they're not really notions of self-determination at all.

      I think, for example, if we were to perform Coyne's (really van Inwagen's) rewinding experiment and find that the outcomes could not be represented by a stable probability distribution, we would have to conclude that our decisions are neither determined nor random. This doesn't imply free will, but it does kill the dichotomy.

      I don't mean to say that I think libertarianism is true, since I don't think there's any good reason to believe that. I just also don't think there's any good reason to believe otherwise.

    3. Your position is self-contradictory -- actions can't be non-deterministic and non-random at the same time.

  7. I get the impression that a lot of incompatibilism makes a distinction between the self and what the brain does. If the brain is capable of making choices, then in what sense could it be said that we haven't made a choice?

  8. re Froot Loops or Muesli as an example of whether we make a choice, sure I'll bite, if someone already came up with this in the last 200 comments, sorry for repeating.

    Time 0: A decision path appears in front of bleary-eyed breakfaster (B-E-B)

    Time 1: B-E-B realizes this

    Time 2 or 3: B-E-B thinks about the enlightenment and just rewards that await should Muesli be ingested at T+3+x

    Time 2 or 3: B-E-B thinks about the short-term happiness and impending trip to hell that await should Froot Loops be ingested at T+3+x

    Time 4: B-E-B waits

    Time 5: B-E-B waits

    Time 6: The creative muse of a desire arrives in B-E-B's internal processing systems.

    Time 7: B-E-B reaches for one thing.

    Time 8: An alternate desire arrives, it is not as strong as the first, therefore it is ignored

    Time 9: The thing reached for is eaten.

    The free will question may be very important if it help explains what is actually going on. To me, it is all about Steps 5 and 6, as to whether B-E-Bs actions are any different that an ATM deciding whether to give you cash. The ATM has to wait for an answer from the network of many other processing systems with many many other concerns apart from B-E-B's.

    Where did that decision come from? A system all packed in a single human body with borders of skin? Does anyone still believe that? Is it the environment working in concert with the body? Of course. The dimensionality and location of the environment is what is fascinating and in question.

  9. PART ONE:

    The Internet is amazing. It hosts media of all kinds. Anybody can communicate with anybody. And you can find out anything you want to know. It’s huge and complex but we don’t need to understand how it works to know that it does. In the same way, we don’t need to understand how the brain works to know that it does. Its electro-chemical machinations, while interesting, aren’t necessary to understand in order to know that the brain deliberates. That’s what it does.

    Neuroscience can’t yet explain how the brain does what it does but it has made some intriguing discoveries. One such discovery is numerous feedback mechanisms in various modules of the brain. It’s this mental (intelligent) feedback that has led me to an interpretation of (the ill-named) “free will” that explains human purpose: I call it “self-determinism”.

    The philosophical conundrum with “free will” has always been the notion that it necessarily violates a fundamental law of nature: cause and effect (causality).That’s a false dichotomy. It’s not either/or. There are other possibilities. I hope to convince you that, because of intelligent feedback, self-determinism can explain our ability to manipulate events (purpose): not despite causality but, rather, because of, and in concert with, causality. The challenge is in overcoming philosophical objections. I hope, this time, my explanation succeeds.

    By the way, I get the impression that some people think it’s “arrogant” of me to attempt an explanation of “free will”. That’s ridiculous. Everybody’s got an opinion. This one’s mine. If that disturbs you, I suggest you look within for the reason.

    Causes aren’t monolithic: they’re discrete. Normally, cause and effect are constantly repeated (or repeatable) with predictable results. Scientific experiments rely on this fact. Outside the quantum realm, causality is universal. You can’t cite an effect without a cause. Like time, causality is unidirectional; flowing from the past, through the present, to the future. Cause comes first, then its effect: the sequence is invariable. This means effects have no influence on their causes. But with intelligent feedback, effects can have an influence on future instances of their causes if we learn from them and prepare for those future instances. If we succeed, we’ve altered the path causality would have otherwise taken. And that takes purpose: self-determinism.

    Because of these properties of causality (unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability) intelligent feedback gives us a virtual, temporal, advantage over causality when we interact with it. With intelligent feedback we can examine events and tie their effects to their causes and deduce the preceding sequence of events. We understand consequences. But the real empowerment of self-determinism comes from our mental ability to extrapolate cause and effect into the future to manipulate anticipated events to suit our own purpose(s). That is self-determinism. We use our intelligence to prepare for — or even control — cause and effect. Cause and effect are not violated. But because of our preparations, we manipulate how it unfolds.

    Take Amsterdam, for instance. It is below sea level. Causality would normally dictate that it be under water. But it’s not. Because of our intelligent, proactive, interaction with causality, Amsterdam remains dry. Did we violate causality to accomplish this? Of course not. We intelligently used causality to accomplish it. Causality does not have purpose(s). It doesn’t think. It doesn’t care if Amsterdam exists or not. But we do. We served our own purposes and altered future events (causality) accordingly.

    We find this easiest to do with materials and phenomena we readily understand. And what we readily understand are materials and phenomena with consistent, persistent, properties. We can reliably manipulate sand and gravel, wood and metals, air and water, elements and chemical compounds but reliably manipulating people is a different matter.

  10. PART TWO:

    I believe the difficulty boils down to the two different modes of causal response between inanimate matter and animate beings. The inanimate mode of response to causality is passive and predictable. The animate mode of response to causality is interactive and unpredictable. It’s the difference between a rock and a brain. Inanimate matter is easier to manipulate because it’s easier to predict. Animate beings are more difficult to predict because they’re more complex and possess properties, such as intelligence, motility, respiration, digestion, etc. that inanimate matter does not.

    As human beings, we interact with the external world intelligently. In other words, we interact with causality intelligently. That means we learn from it, understand it and use it for our own purposes. Feedback is the key. It empowers us by mentally rendering causality bi-directional. We learn from the past to manipulate the future. It’s really just that simple. We can understand consequences and act accordingly. There’s no advanced philosophy needed to explain away man-in-the-machine, mind-brain, dualism because there is none. Just simple facts that anybody can understand.

    Self-determinism requires no violation of causality because it’s the properties of causality (unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability) that facilitate our intelligent interaction with it. Causality gives us a fundamental means by which to understand the world around us. The fact that we use this understanding to manipulate the world around us is empirical proof that we interact with causality intelligently and with purpose. And that means we really do make choices that serve our own purposes — because causality has no purpose. We don’t progress arbitrarily . . . we progress with purpose. That much seems transparently obvious and undeniable. You can claim it’s an illusion, if you like, but you can’t substantiate your claim. The fact is that, in actual practice, civilization takes “free will” for granted and pursues its goals as needed. We all act as if we have “free will”. We take credit for our achievements. Everything we do presumes purpose. In contrast to human purpose, nothing causality does presumes or indicates purpose in any way whatsoever. It’s pretty cut-and-dry when put in the proper perspective.

    So I’ll ask: “How does our manipulation of the world around us NOT demonstrate purpose?” Were we really scripted, since the beginning of time, to fly jets into the Twin Towers? Are we really automatons programmed, somehow, at the moment of the Big Bang? That’s what you’re asking us to believe if you insist causality is necessarily violated by “free will”. I say we are what we appear to be and that any assertion that self-determinism is an illusion is based on the erroneous assumption that it must violate causality. That is a false dichotomy which hastily and unnecessarily rules out other possibilities like deliberate, proactive, interaction with causality: self-determinism.

    If human brains deliberate and if causality is a law of nature, then they are obviously compatible. Self-determinism explains how. Intelligent feedback extends determinism to self-determinism. It is a compatibilist explanation of what “free will” really is. It is compatible with causality and is, in fact, an extension of it: extended, primarily, by intelligent feedback.

    Intelligent feedback makes us self-aware, future-aware, manipulators of events . . . and events are what causality is all about. This manipulation of events gives us a modest power over causality: the power of purpose. That is self-determinism. The only kind of “free will” we have. And the only kind we need.

    1. *In the pragmatic way of thinking in terms of conceivable practical implications, every thing has a purpose, and its purpose is the first thing that we should try to note about it.*
      Charles Sanders Peirce

  11. Human beings are attentive, intelligent, rational, and responsible animals. Each level of the human mind gives rise to a number of questions, but responsibility, also known as free will, is the most frequently discussed. The Catholic view is that free will is a mystery. The evidence supporting this theory is the following:

    1) It is clear that we have free will when we do something that takes a lot of will power.
    2) People who say free will is an illusion live their lives as if they had free will.
    3) There is no evidence supporting materialism (free will is an illusion) or dualism (there exists spiritual substances).
    4) There is some evidence for idealism (the body is an illusion).

    Another way of saying free will is a mystery is saying humans are embodied spirits. We can comprehend free will because we have it. But we can't define free will.

  12. "Meaning #2 is what people actually mean by “could,” most of the time."

    Is this actually true?

    This seems like an empirical question that we could actually, or perhaps already have, a pretty good answer to. What does the current data on conventional notions of free will suggest? I'd be interested to know.

    1. You're right, I made that empirical claim hastily, and given people's dualistic intuitions it might even be false. What I probably should have said is "Meaning #2 is what people SHOULD mean..."

  13. I am a hard determinist (I have written a book called Free Will?) and it all really comes down to the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. Free will,as is commonly understood, is your Meaning 1, and i would deny it. Meaning 2 is really meaning 1 because the 'wanted to' is merely part of / a result of the counterfactual or causal circumstance. You only would have wanted to had you been a different person or the environment was different. But, ceteris paribus, you would always choose the same. There is no alternate possibility.

    Both philosophically and casually (and causally!) we have no free will. As many critics will say, since determinism effectively means no free will, free will and determinism cannot be compatible unless you redefine free will.


    1. I agree entirely. However, the illusion of free will - as in the case of 'could I have steered into oncoming traffic' is very helpful for living! It allows us to run simulations in our brains which feedback into our deterministic actions and we can be aware of lots, but not all, of this going on. If you briefly imagine steering into traffic, suddenly feel fear, then realize "wow! good thing I didn't follow through on that idea" you've actually learned something & changed. All this happens without any free will - it's us getting to experience the pre-written script of our lives in such a way that it SEEMS like it isn't pre-written!

  14. Ian- I have concerns about your interpretations of 'could'. Meaning #1 takes it to mean physical possibility, and defines physical possibility such that, effectively, only what actually happens at a given moment is physically possible. The example regarding the physical impossibility of swerving into the oncoming lane is a particular case of it being physically impossible for any physical state but the actual one to obtain at a given moment in time. So this appears to be your view of physical possibility.

    Turning to Meaning #2, you take 'could' to relate a counterfactual state of affairs, one in which a different flow of physical causation leads to a different decision on the freeway. In what sense is this counterfactual flow possible? It can't be physically possible, on your definition, because the possibility of this alternative flow depends on there being some point of deviance from physical actuality forbid by your view stated in Meaning #1. If you want to say that physical possibility in this case relates to the existence of a distinct physically possible world, why couldn't you say that same applies in the case of meaning #1. Really, the only difference between the two cases is temporal duration of the conceived counterfactual state of affairs. To me it seems that at the core of your compatiblism is equivocation on the notion of physical possibility.

    1. I agree that the interpretation of "could" in meaning #1 is wrong. What kind of reasoning is it that leads you, Ian, to think that because thing A happened thing B could not have - because thing A did? It reminds me of Baldrick in The Black Adder defining dog as "not a cat."

      I get the feeling that the whole basis for the "illusion" perspective is twisted meanings and tortured logic.

    2. Yeah, they seem unable to comprehend that a state of 'wanting to do something' is different from 'already done.'

      Or, the point of #2, the physical state of 'Hmmm, what should I do now?" as a determining factor that causes an effect, ie. evaluating alternatives and selecting one of them.

      They don't seem to understand that many co-causes can produce one effect(action) and the reverse, a cause can produce multiple effects.

      They never explain how a cause can produce the effect known as 'qualia' or the effect of 'being aware of possible futures.'

    3. To both of the above comments, the determinist doesn't think that B could not have happened BECAUSE A happened, but that A was the result of some prior cause which necessarily resulted in A. B couldn't have happened because the nature of the prior cause was to cause A and not B. There's nothing "tortured" about the logic here. I find it hard to imagine what someone would think other than this is what goes on, or that some form of randomness may inject itself into the situation (so that event X could lead to, say, A or B, but not to anything other than A or B).

      So no, it's not that a determinist can't comprehend a state of wanting to do something different from what's "already done"; they aren't thinking that something was determined by looking at what happened and then saying that because of what happened, therefore nothing else could have happened; what determined A rather than B was the nature of the prior cause.

      So, I think you're both misunderstanding in a very strange way.

      The determinist recognizes that whatever counterfactuals you are consciously aware of as conceivable alternatives do exist, but could not in principle be selected by you given whatever factors led to the particular event in which you are conceiving of those alternatives and the choice you do end up selecting; obviously, IF things were different different outcomes could occur, but things...aren't different from how they are, so nobody could in principle ever choose other than what they choose.

      I don't even understand what you're saying in the latter parts or why any of that is relevant or a problem for determinists.

  15. Ian
    >"Roughly, we judge decision algorithms, not their histories."
    But we DO incorporate histories into moral judgment. We judge less harshly a young man that has committed a crime when we know he was physically abused as a child, malnourished, emotionally abused, etc. The algorithm that represented the predisposition to commit a crime, in certain circumstances,was created by it's history of being formed.

  16. When the question of the existence of god is raised...no one would tolerated the answer "Well...I think 'god' means or should mean 'The Grand Canyon'. Does the Grand Canyon exist or not? Yes. Therefore, 'god' exists. This attempt at avoiding the question by redefinition would be laughed at. Why aren't we laughing at the attempts to redefine 'free will' in terms that one can assert Yes, look,it exists. The desperate struggle to define away the philosophical problem of humans being caused, just as any other part of nature is, becomes amazing after a while. I'm sure that under SOME definition or meaning, 'free will' can be shown to exist....and no one will have to feel less important, moral, prideful, or free.

    1. Aren't you being a little harsh about re-defining things? Granted there comes a point where re-defining becomes an evasion for not admitting error (e.g. 40 epicycles in an earth-centered concept of the solar system). But any such question is best settled by looking at competing theories and invoking the parsimony principle -- not by the mere fact that a theory has been revised.

      Scientists have abandoned or modified many concepts such as the billiard ball model of the atom. In fact "atom" once meant something that is indivisible, but scientists commonly speak of sub-atomic particles (the division of the indivisible) -- and no one laughs at them. What is wrong with altering a concept of free will to incorporate new knowledge? It has been done by scientists many times in the past. Scientist really don't speak about arriving at the "truth" -- they only speak of models that fit empirical facts for the time being in a "good" or "less good" way.

      Scientists even "custom fit" their numbers to their theories. If, for example, "A" is thought to be linked to "B" but the Chi-square test of the data is over 0.05 (chance relation), an experimenter will re-jigger the numbers in the initial assumptions in order to bring the Chi-square value down below 0.05. This will show that "A" *could* be related to "B" -- given certain initial assumptions. As make-shift and arbitrary as that sounds, it is considered valid science. I hope nobody thinks that all scientific theories emerge fully formed from the head of Zeus after having an "immaculate conception" and remain eternally spot-on consistent with the "truth".

  17. What....No new definitions of 'free will'? Set yourself free....simply redefine 'free'.

  18. After giving a talk on computers at Princeton in 1948, John von Neumann was met with an audience member who insisted that a “mere machine” could never really think. Von Neumann’s immortal reply was:

    You insist that there is something a machine cannot do. If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that!

    The problem with most philosophy is that it is imprecise, and this leads to centuries of confusion. Do numbers exist? Depends what you mean by “exist.” Is the God hypothesis simple? Depends what you mean by “simple.” Can we choose our own actions? Depends what you mean by “can” and “choose.”

    Many philosophers try to be precise about such things, but they rarely reach mathematical precision. On the other hand, artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and other computer scientists have to figure out how to teach these concepts to a computer, so they must be 100% precise.


    1. Von Neumann is almost certainly wrong. See J.R. Lucas's paper, "Minds, Machines and Goedel". In this paper, Lucas proposes that Goedel's theorem suggests that we cannot, even in principle, have a mechanical model of the mind.

      In response to Von Nuemann's challenge, I would say, "build me a machine that understands set theory like a human".

    2. As far as I am aware, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is not applicable to the brain / mind.

    3. See http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/Godel/mmg.html

    4. Tom: From Lucas' paper: "It follows that given any machine which is consistent and capable of doing simple arithmetic, there is a formula which it is incapable of producing as being true---i.e., the formula is unprovable-in-the-system-but which we can see to be true."

      Lucas doesn't address the problem that there are corresponding logical statements which humans cannot prove as true. This is either due to humans being incomplete, or inconsistent.

      Godel doesn't get you off the hook.

    5. It is indeed the most common criticism. The premise of Godel's theorem is that the machine is consistent. We know, empirically, that the brain is not consistent.

    6. You seem to ignore the final words: "...the formula is unprovable-in-the-system-but which WE [HUMANS] CAN SEE TO BE TRUE".

      Von Neumann's machine CANNOT see it to be true.

    7. Right. Similarly, there are formulas which humans can't see to be true, but a more complicated system could.

      What's more, not only does Godel not support your position, Lucas doesn't even support your position!

      Second-to-last paragraph: "It is essential for the mechanist thesis that the mechanical model of the mind shall operate according [270] to "mechanical principles", that is, that we can understand the operation of the whole in terms of the operations of its parts, and the operation of each part either shall be determined by its initial state and the construction of the machine, or shall be a random choice between a determinate number of determinate operations. If the mechanist produces a machine which is so complicated that this ceases to hold good of it, then it is no longer a machine for the purposes of our discussion, no matter how it was constructed. We should say, rather, that he had created a mind, in the same sort of sense as we procreate people at present. There would then be two ways of bringing new minds into the world, the traditional way, by begetting children born of women, and a new way by constructing very, very complicated systems of, say, valves {59} and relays. When talking of the second way, we should take care to stress that although what was created looked like a machine, it was not one really, because it was not just the total of its parts."

      So basically, once a machine is too complicated for Lucas to understand, then it isn't a machine at all, and all is right with the world.

      Sorry, no dice.

    8. Always interesting to remember that the human brain IS the most complex thing in the entire known universe.

  19. Eid
    In the case of discussions about the existence of 'free will', the issue is not clarity or the lack of clarity. Individuals have been redefining 'free will'....not simply clarifying the historical philosophical meaning. Rather than accepting that there is no free will....they change the question to "Does 'free will 2' exist?" or "does 'free will 3' exist?" etc...until they find a type of free will that may provide the answer that they desperately desire. A YES.

    1. Yeah? Seems the opposite, to me. See our discussion back at Jerry Coyne's, Free will redux.
      Free will means 'voluntary', as if you can't ask almost any person on the planet and know what free will means.

      I have a problem with hard determinist's refusal to understand common everyday terminology.

      Let's call it, "I get to pick what I do" like, I get to decide to stand up, and wow, I then do!"
      What's so difficult? It doesn't mean, "I feel like doing anything I want, even if it violates the laws of physics, or if I haven't even thought of it, say, being like an electron and tunneling to China" or "I feel like doing something that is not caused by anything to do that something, because if I even think of something, I am placing constraints on the possibilities and it isn't entirely 'free', then."

      Come over to our discussion and I'll give you a lesson in who can't define a very simple concept, okay?

      For one thing, you say, "Rather than accepting that there is no free will...," it seems to me it is you that can't understand personal responsibility, or you are a mind reader and can peek into our minds and see us thinking, "screw reason and knowledge, I want free will, sniffff."

      You wouldn't be starting with an assumption that what you think is unquestionably true already, would you? LMAO, I guess I can start on lesson number one of "Logical fallacies for Dummies" and begin with explaining the Straw Man, also known as one variation of [citation needed].

      Actually no, please don't bother. I'm not going through all that shite again, it's like arguing against Christian fundamentalists that keep using well refuted, and patently false, arguments over again every time they get into a debate, or several times in the same debate, they are so unclear of things.

    2. winaelicker
      >"Let's call it, "I get to pick what I do" like, I get to decide to stand up, and wow, I then do!"
      Naturally, this ignores the fact that what you "want" to do is determined by prior inputs.....and also that your 'choice' is not random....but determined by you 'wanting' to stand up. Your wanting to was determined...as is every want that you have.If this is what you want to define as your meaning of the phrase 'free will'....then you have made yourself correct via redefining.

    3. windaelicker
      >"Come over to our discussion and I'll give you a lesson in who can't define a very simple concept, okay? "
      I did not say I doubted ones ability to define 'free will'. I think it is easy to define or redefine 'free will' In fact....everyone is doing a swell job of offering up THEIR definition of 'free will' . The result is that the question that has been debated for centuries is not being addressed. Instead, new concepts are being discussed. Perhaps if we discuss one concept at a time it might help clarify our discussions. By some definitions, there may be agreement that there is 'free will'. By other definitions there may be agreement that there is not. Nevertheless....the age old question of contra-causal free will is currently being neglected....and new definitions are being discussed that are likely being generated because people don't like the implications they see from the answer to contra-causal free will considerations.

    4. windlaeker
      >"it seems to me it is you that can't understand personal responsibility"
      My sense of 'personal responsibility' is that of our 'being held' responsible is what makes us responsible. And my contra-causal free will being non-existent does not interfere with society deciding to "hold" individuals responsible for their actions.

    5. Windaelicker

      It's quite simple. If you believe in free will, you accept the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. If you deny PAP, you don't believe in free will.

      I, like any hard determinist and like any determinist, deny PAP.

      According to philpapers only 12.2% of philosophers hold to libertarian free will. Everyone else is some kind of determinist. Even compatibilists deny PAP. But to do so, they HAVE to redefine free will. Thus many compatibilists deny PAP but still claim some kind of free will. And that is the crux - 'some kind' of free will. Not free will.

    6. windlaeker
      Hey winlaeker....where did you go? Are the guys over here at Rationally Speaking to tough on you. Come on back.....

  20. DJD. Free will is just not very well defined. What do you want to hear?

  21. DaveS
    >"Free will is just not very well defined. What do you want to hear?"
    'Free will' has a number of well defined uses. Different people are using the term to refer to a variety of different referents.
    It is not a problem with definition. It is a problem of talking about entirely different referents.There are now many different referents which we, unfortunately, use the same term in referencing them....instead of using a different term to refer to these different things.

  22. Note that Jerry has written a follow-up piece here.

    I am very busy at the moment, sorry for not responding to comments.

    1. ian
      I would enjoy seeing your response to Jerry's criticism of your presentation.

    2. Thanks DJD, I'll see if I can find the time.

  23. There is stuff wrong with proposition number one.
    Hi, I am just here to see your whole post, and I don't know I haven't earlier! I don't know if you've seen some of the points Xuuths and I(tushcloots) have made, but it is very interesting. His analogy with Zeno's paradox(I've never heard it before) my referal to AC Clarke's "any technology sufficiently advanced will appear as magic' and saying that 'the brain merely uses a sufficiently advanced technology' based on the unaccountable properties of qualia, even though they are real.
    Also, if our thoughts/cognition etc. are caused, then they can cause effects in the brain, whether they are exactly ever understandable physically or not. They are part of the causal, determinist chain, and if analysing and weighing alternatives and selecting a preferable, or willful, or voluntary action are part of our thinking, our cognition, then the cognitive choice that is made is part of, or is, the determining factor with the effect being our action or behavior.
    Not that this rules out hard determinism, but that I want to get the idea in that our awareness of thinking, sense of self, qualia - these are not definable physically, right now, so the possibility necessarily exists that our thoughts can feedback into what we understand physically, with the result of our freely, or willfully arrived at choice as then inciting our behavior and decision on how to carry out an action.

    Re proposition #1, I maintain that 'if everything was the same' is actually virtually meaningless, because I may indeed choose to do something different in the same situation.
    This leads to a difficulty defining at what point you are going to insist that 'everything is the same' and at what point a physical motion, or decision placed into action, has been irretrievably begun.
    There are billions upon billions of physical events taking place every second in our brains, and a consciously mediated decision, to stop or change our started action, may be physically begun withing a few hundred thousand, or a few thousand, significant events in the neural networks. This is just a very loose guess, of course, but the idea of exactly when an action is irretrievable or unchangeably taken place may have to be defined as withing micro or milliseconds from a so called 'everything the same' instant of time.

    I will read this thread as I am able to find time - you folks probably already discussed all this!

    Basically, I wanted to say hello to you, Ian and Massimo, and it was nice seeing you, Ian, at Whyevolutionistrue to comment on our discussion. My name is Mike Laing, and I am 'tushclots' at Jerry Coyne's site.

    1. tushcloots/windaelicker
      Your arguments are like those that insist that if we cannot prove that god does not exist....then it is still an open question. It is up to those that BELIEVE...to pony up evedence and proof....not those that don't believe. Prove to us that contra-causal free will exists....since you are the BELIEVER.

    2. tushcloots
      You are going to extremes to desperately posit some possible doubts. But doubts don't cut it. Give some proof of contra-causal free will and contra-causal choices.....If you cannot, then consider accepting the lack of free will as the current state of the art in scientific and rational understand.....then focus on the implications of the lack of contra-causal free will. They aren't that bad.

  24. Here is the core of your argument. We are driving and suddenly are struck by the idea that if we wanted to we could drive into oncoming traffic, but we don't. Is it right to ask if we "could" have done it? You answer yes and no, based on the following two propositions:

    Proposition #1: “No, the state of the universe was such that it was physically impossible for you to have steered into oncoming traffic.”

    Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if you had wanted to).”

    You say that the "essence of compatibilism" comes from the fact that you see both propositions as true. But this is an enormous equivocation itself, which is revealed when you say that it is important to note "that wanting to corresponds to a different physical state than not wanting to." If wanting is a consequence of the physical state, #2 becomes a trivial corollary to #1:

    Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if the state of the universe differed from #1, such that you wanted to).”

    The incompatibilist can now readily agree that both #1 and #2 are true. Proposition #2 says nothing new about determinism and volition, and so apparently the essence of compatibilism is nothing, or at least as you describe it, there is no discernible difference from incompatibilism. What is the use of saying we could choose differently if the universe were other than it is?

    1. No. It seems to me that you continue to, at least in your analysis, conflate volition with free will.

      Volition....In you daily life can you and do you make choices? Sure.

      Free Will....Are you your own creator? No. In this case, the question is who are "you"? Once you answer that question, which you have avoided addressing so far, you will be able to understand the difference.

    2. Actually, I've spent time elsewhere addressing the question of "who I am". But it wasn't relevant to the topic I was responding to in this post.

      I'm a little confused by your reference to Free Will and a creator. But then it may be that you are making dualist assumptions that I don't accept.

      Who I am starts with my genetic inheritance. I am a mammal of the species homo sapiens. Gene expression influenced by environment gave me a body and a plastic brain capable of learning. From there who I am has steadily changed over time based on my trial and error actions and my observations and memories of the results of those actions. The sum total of knowledge, experience, memory, wisdom, etc. incrementally accumulated and encoded in the structures of my brain is the source of my subjective conscious experience of "who I am" and "how I feel" and "how I think". In a sense I am my own creator in that I have been a participant in each moment of the slow continual cumulative process of creating "who I am". I am a member of homo sapiens, the most intelligent, creative, and flexible biological organism we know of as of today.

      What I am not is free to deceive myself by believing stories invented thousands of years ago by people with almost no clear understanding of the natural world. To believe something with not a shred of evidence, and with no basis other than the fact that generation after generation have handed it down, even though most of those generations were not in possession of sufficient knowledge to mount an adequate criticism of this mass delusion, appears to "who I am" to be the height of unreason and folly.

  25. Jeffrey Johnson
    Excellent analysis and presentation. Notice that you have yet to get a response from any compatibilists.

  26. Jeffrey Johnson
    I just had a thought....that's the way most liberals end their debates also....with no response to something that SHOULD elicit..."Gee, maybe your right"

  27. A serendipitous occurrence. Random web browsing brought me this article on lesswrong.com that clearly states my position on this argument. http://lesswrong.com/lw/rb/possibility_and_couldness/


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