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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.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

From the naturalism workshop, part II

by Massimo Pigliucci

Second day of the workshop on “Moving Naturalism forward,” organized by cosmologist Sean Carroll. Today we started with Steven Weinberg (Nobel in physics) introducing his thoughts about morality. Why is a physicist talking about morality, you may ask? Good question, I reply, but let’s see...

The chair of the session was Rebecca Goldstein, who mentioned that she doesn’t find the morality question baffling at all. For her, moral reasoning is something that we have been doing for a long time, and moreover where philosophy has clearly made positive and incremental contributions throughout human history. She of course accepts the idea of a naturalistic origin for morality, but immediately added that evolutionary psychological accounts are simply not enough. In the process, she managed to both appreciate and criticize the work of Jonathan Haidt on the different dimensions of liberal vs progressive moral reasoning.

Weinberg agreed with Goldstein’s broad claim that we can reason about morality, but was concerned with the question of whether we can ground morality using science, and particularly the theory of evolution. He declared that he has been “thoroughly annoyed” by Sam Harris’ book on scientific answers to moral questions. He went on to observe that most people don’t actually have a coherent set of moral principles, nor do they need it. Weinberg said that early on in his life he was essentially a utilitarian, thinking that maximization of happiness was the logical moral criterion. Then he read Huxley’s Brave New World, and he was disabused of such a simplistic notion. Which is yet another reason he didn’t find Harris compelling, considering that the latter is a self-described utilitarian.

Weinberg also criticized utilitarianism by rejecting Peter Singer-style arguments to the effect that more good would be done in the world by living on bare minimum necessities and giving away much of your income to others. Weinberg argued instead that we owe loyalty to our family and friends, and that there is nothing immoral about preferring their welfare to the welfare of strangers. Indeed, although I don’t think he realized it, he was essentially espousing a virtue ethics / communitarian type of ethics. Weinberg concluded from his analysis that we “ought to live the unexamined life” instead, because that’s what the human condition leads us to.

Goldstein’s response was that we don’t need grounding postulates to engage in fruitful moral reasoning, and I of course agree. I pointed out that ethics is about developing reasonable ways to think about moral issues, starting with (and negotiating) certain assumptions about human life. In my book, for instance, Michael Sandel’s writings are excellent examples of how to engage in fruitful moral reasoning without having to settle the sort of metaethical issues that worry Weinberg (interestingly, and gratifyingly, I saw Jerry Coyne nodding somewhat vigorously while I was making my points). Dennett added that there are ways of thinking through issues that do not involve fact finding, but rather explore the logical consequences of certain possible courses of action — which is why moral philosophy is informed by facts (even scientific facts), but not determined by them. And for Dennett, of course, we — meaning humanity at large — are the ultimate arbiters of what works and doesn’t work in the ethical realm.

Dawkins agreed with Goldstein that there has been moral progress, and that we live in a significantly improved society in the 21st century compared to even recent times, let alone of course the Middle Ages. Dawkins also mentioned Steven Pinker’s work demonstrating a steady decrease in violence throughout human history (Goldstein humorously pointed out that Pinker got the idea from her). Dawkins also made the good point that we talk about morality as if it were only a human problem because all other species of Homo went extinct. Had that not been the case, we might be having a somewhat different conversation.

Both Weinberg and Goldstein agreed that a significant amount of moral progress comes from literature, and more recently movies. Things like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Sidney Poitier’s role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, have the power to help changing people’s attitudes about what is right and what is wrong.

Which led to my comment about Hume and Aristotle. I think — with these philosophers — that moral reasoning is grounded in a broadly construed conception of human nature. Aristotle emphasized the importance of community environment, and particularly of one’s family and early education environment; but also of reflection and conscious attempts at improving. Hume agreed that basic human instincts are a mix of selfish and cooperative ones, but also argued that human nature itself can change over time, as a result of personal reflection and community wide conversations.

Carroll noted a surprising amount of agreement in the group about the fact that morality arose naturally because we are large brained social animals with certain needs, emotions and desires; but also about the fact that factual information and deliberate reflection can both improve our lot and the way we engage in moral reasoning. Owen Flanagan, however, pointed out that most people outside of this group do think of morality in a foundational sense, which is untenable from a naturalistic perspective. Owen went on to remind people that David Hume — after the famous passage warning about the logical impossibility of deriving oughts from is — went on to engage in quite a bit of moral reasoning nonetheless, simply doing so without pretending that he was demonstrating things.

Weinberg claimed that he cannot think of a way to change other people’s minds about moral priorities when there is significant disagreement. But Dennett pointed out that we do this all the time: we engage in societal conversations with the aim of persuading others, and in so doing we are changing their nature. That is, for instance, how we made progress on issues such as women rights, gay rights, or animal welfare (as Goldstein had already pointed out).

Terrence Deacon remarked that there was an elephant in the room: how is it that this group agrees so broadly about morality, if a good number of them are also fundamental reductionists? Isn’t moral reasoning an emergent property of human societies? That is indeed a good question, and I always wonder how people like Coyne or Rosenberg (or Harris, who was invited but couldn’t make it to the workshop) can at the same time hold essentially nihilistic views about existence and yet talk about good and bad things and what we should (ought?) to do about them? Carrol agreed that we should be using the emergence vocabulary when talking about societies and morality. In his mind, the stories we tell about atoms are different from the stories we tell about ethics; the first ones are descriptive, the latter ones become prescriptive. To use his kind of example, we can use the term “wrong” both when someone denies the existence of quarks and when someone kills an innocent person, but that word indicates different types of judgments that we need to keep distinct.

Simon DeDeo asked what sort of explanation we have for saying that, say, Western society has gotten “better” at ethical issues? (We all agreed that, more or less, it has.) We don’t seem to have anything like, say, the evolutionary explanation of what makes a bird “better” at flying. But Don Ross replied that we do have at least partial explanations, for instance drawing on the resources of game theory. In response to Ross, DeDeo pointed out that game theory can only give an account of morality within a consequentialist framework. Both Ross and (interestingly) Alex Rosenberg disagreed. Dennett helped clarifying things here, making a distinction between what he called “second rate” (or naive) consequentialism, which is a bad idea easily criticized on philosophical grounds, and the broader concept that of course consequences matter to human ethical decision making. In general, I think that we are still doing fairly poorly in the area that we need to answer DeDeo’s question: a good theory of cultural evolution. But of course that doesn’t mean it cannot be done or will not be done at some point (as is well known, I’m skeptical of memetic-type theories in this respect).

In the second part of the morning session we moved to consider the concept of meaning, with Owen Flanagan giving the opening remarks. He pointed out that the historical realization that we are “just” animals caused problems within the context of the preceding cultural era during which human beings were thought of as special direct creations of gods. Owen brought us back 2,500 years ago, to Aristotle and the ancient Greek’s concept of eudaimonia, the life that leads to human flourishing. Aristotle noted that people have different ideas of the good life, but also that there are some universals (or nearly so). One of these is that no normal person wishes to have a life without friends. Flanagan thinks — and I agree — that we can use the Aristotelian insight to build a discipline of “eudaimonics,” one that is both descriptive and normative. The good  life is about the confluence of the true, the beautiful and the good (all lower case letters, of course).

An example I brought up of modern-day analysis of a concept that Aristotle would have been familiar with is the comparison between people’s day-to-day self-reported happiness vs their overall conception of meaning in their life when it comes to having children. Turns out that having children actually significantly decreases day-to-day happiness, but it also increases the long-term positive meaning that most people attribute to their lives.

Rebecca Goldstein argued that novelists have a unique perspective on the issue of meaning, because of the process involved in devising characters and their stories. She claims that her writing novels taught her that a major component of flourishing and meaning is the idea of an individual mattering to other people. (Again, Aristotle would not have been surprised.) Rebecca connected this to the question that she is often asked about how can she find meaning in life as an atheist. She had a hard time even understanding the question, until she realized that of course for theists meaning is defined universally by an external agency on the basis that we “matter” to the gods. So the atheist is still using the idea that mattering and meaning are connected, she just does away with the external agency.

Dennett suggested that we as atheists need to think of projects and organizations that help secular people feel that they matter in more productive ways than, say, joining a crusade to kill the infidels. Janna Levin brought up the example of a flourishing of science clubs in places like New York City, which provide a community for intellectual kin (and of course there are also a good number of philosophy meetups!). Still, I argued (and Carroll, Goldstein, Coyne, and Flanagan agreed) that attempts in that direction — like the various Societies for Ethical Culture — are largely a failure. Secularists, especially in Europe, find meaning and feel that they matter because they live in a society they feel comfortable in and are active members of. Just like the ancient Greeks’ concept of a polis that citizens could be proud of and contribute to. It’s the old Western idea of civic pride, if you will. 

I need to note at this point, that — just as in the case of morality discussed above — the nihilists / reductionists in the group didn’t seem to have any problem meaningfully talking about meaning, so to speak, even though their philosophy would seem to preclude that sort of talk altogether... (The exception was Rosenberg, who stuck to his rather extreme nihilist guns.)

The afternoon session was devoted to free will, with Dennett giving the opening remarks. His first point was that there is a difference between the “manifest image” and the “scientific image” of things. For instance, there is a popular / intuitive conception of time (manifest image), and then there is the philosophical and/or scientific conception of time. But it is still the case that time exists. Why, then, asked Dennett, do so many neuroscientists flat out deny the existence of free will (“it’s an illusion”), rather than replacing the common image with a scientific one?

Free will, for Dennett, is as real as time or, say, colors, but it’s not what some people think it is. And indeed, some views of free will are downright incoherent. He suggested that nothing we have learned from neuroscience shows that we haven’t been wired (by evolution) for free will, which means that we also get to keep the concept of moral responsibility. That said, contra-causal free will would be a miracle, and we can’t help ourselves to miracles in a naturalistic framework.

Citing a Dilbert cartoon, Dennett said that the zeitgeist is such that people think that it follows from naturalism that we are “nothing but moist robots.” But this, for Dennett, is confusing the ideology of the manifest image with the manifest image itself. An analogy might help: one could say that if that is what you mean by color (i.e., what science means by that term), then color doesn’t exist. But we don’t say that, we re-conceptualize color instead. For instance: it makes perfect sense to distinguish between people who have the competence and will to sign a contract, and those who don’t. We have to draw these distinctions because of practical social and political reasons, which however does not imply that we are somehow cutting nature at its joints in a metaphysical sense. Moreover, Dennett pointed out that experiments show that if people are told that there is no free will they cheat more frequently, which means that the conceptualization of free will does have practical consequences. Which in turn puts some responsibility on the shoulders of neuroscientists and others who go around telling people that there is no free will.

Jerry Coyne gave the response to Dennett’s presentation, not buying into the practical dangers highlighted by the latter (Jerry seemed to think that these effects are only short-term; that may be, but I don’t think that undermines Dennett’s point). Coyne declared himself to be an incompatibilist (no surprise there), accusing compatibilists of conveniently redefining free will in order to keep people from behaving like beasts. However, Jerry himself admitted to having changed his definition of free will, and I think in an interesting direction. His old definition was the standard idea that if the tape of the history of the universe were to be played again you would somehow be able to make a different decision, which would violate physical determinism. Then he realized that quantum indeterminacy could, in principle, bring in indeterminism, and could even affect your conscious choices (through quantum effects percolating up to the macroscopic level). So he redefined free will as the idea that you are able to make decisions independently of your genes, your environments and their interactions. To which Dennett objected that that’s a pretty strange definition of free will, which no serious compatibilist philosopher would subscribe to.

Jerry then plunged into his standard worry, the same that motivates authors like Sam Harris: we don’t want to give ground to theologically-informed views of morality, and incompatibilism about free will (“we are the puppets of our genes and our environments”) is the best way to do it. Dennett was visibly shaking his head throughout (so was I, inwardly...).

In the midst of all of this, Jerry mentioned the (in)famous Libbett experiments, even though they have been taken apart both philosophically and, more recently, scientifically, which Dennett, Flanagan, and Goldstein immediately pointed out.

During the follow-up discussion Weinberg declared his leaning toward Dennett’s position, despite his (Weinberg’s) acceptance of determinism. We weigh reasons and we arrive at conscious decisions, and we know this by introspection — although he pointed out that of course this doesn’t mean that all our own desires are transparent and introspectively available. Weinberg did indeed paint a picture very similar to Dennett’s: we may never arrive — given the same circumstances — to a different decision, but it is still our decision.

Rosenberg commented that we have evidence that we cannot trust our introspection when it comes to conscious decision making, again citing Libbett. Both Dennett and Flanagan once more pointed out that those experiments have been taken conceptually apart (by them) decades ago (and, I reminded the group, questioned on empirical grounds more recently). Dennett did agree that introspection is not completely reliable, but he remarked that that’s quite different from claiming that we cannot rely on it at all.

Owen Flanagan discussed experiments about conceptions of free will done on undergraduate students. The students were given a definition of free will and then asked questions about whether the person made the decision and was responsible for her actions. The majority of subjects turned out to be both determinists and compatibilists, which undermines the popular idea that the commonsense concept of free will is contra-causal.

I pointed out, particularly to Jerry and Alex Rosenberg, that incompatibilists seem to discard or bracket out the fact that the human brain evolved to be a decision making, reason-weighing organ. If that is true, then there is a causal story that involves the brain, and my decisions are mine in a very strong sense, despite being the result of my lifelong gene-environment interactions (and the way my conscious and unconscious brain components weigh them).

Sean Carroll also objected to Coyne, using an interesting analogy: if Jerry applied his argument about incompatibilism to fundamental physics, he would have to conclude for an incompatibility between statistical mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics. But, Sean suggested, that would be a result of confusing language that is appropriate for one level of analysis with language that is appropriate for another level. (Though he didn’t say that, I would go even further, following up on the previous day’s discussion, and suggest that free will is an emergent property of the brain in a similar sense to which the second law is an emergent property of statistical mechanics — and on the latter even Steven Weinberg agreed!)

Terrence Deacon asked why we insist in using the term “free” will, and Jerry had previously invited people to drop the darn thing. I suggested, and Owen elaborated on it, that we should instead use the terms that cognitive scientists use, like volition or voluntary vs involuntary decision making. Those terms both capture the scientific meaning of what we are talking about and retain the everyday implication that our decisions are ours (and we are therefore responsible for them). And dropping “free” also doesn’t generate confusion about contra-causal mystical-theological mumbo jumbo.

Dennett, in response to a question by Coyne about the evolution of free will, pointed out two interesting things. First, if we take free will to be the ability of a complex brain to exercise conscious decision making, then it is a matter of degrees, and other species may have partial free will. Second, and relatedly, human beings themselves are not born with free will: we develop competence to make (morally relevant, among others) decisions during early life, in part as the result of education and upbringing.

Jerry at some point brought up the case of someone who commits a murder because a brain tumor interfered with his brain function. But I commented that it is strange to take those cases — where we agree that there is a malfunction of the brain — and make them into arguments to reject moral responsibility. Dennett agreed, talking about brains being “wired right” or “wired wrong,” which is a matter of degree, and which translates into degrees of moral responsibility (lowest for the guy affected by the tumor, highest for the person who kills for financial or other gain). Jerry, interestingly, brought up the case of a person who becomes a violent adult because of childhood traumas. But Dennett and I had a response that is in line with our conception of the brain as a decision making organ with higher or lower degrees of functionality: the childhood trauma imposes more constraints (reduces free will) on the brain’s development than a normal education, but fewer than a brain tumor. Consequently, the resulting adult bears an intermediate degree of moral responsibility for his actions.

The second session of the afternoon was on consciousness, introduced by David Poeppel. He claimed — as a cognitive scientist — that there are good empirical reasons to reject the conclusion that Libbett’s experiments (again!) undermine the idea of conscious decision making. At the same time, he did point to research showing that quite a bit of decision making in our brain is in fact invisible or inaccessible to our consciousness.

Dennett brought up experiments on priming in psychology, where the subjects are told not to say whatever word they are going to be primed for. Turns out that if the priming is too fast for conscious attention to pick it up, the subjects will in fact say the word, contravening the directions of the experimenter. But if the time frame is sufficiently long for consciousness to come in, then people are capable of stopping themselves from saying the priming word. The conclusion is that this is good evidence that conscious decision making is indeed possible, and that we can study its dynamics (and limits).

Rosenberg warned that we have good evidence leading us to think that we cannot trust our conscious judgments about our motives and mental states. Indeed, as Dennett pointed out, of course there is self-deception, rationalization, ideology, and self-fooling. But it is also the case that it is only through conscious reasoning that we get to articulate and reflect on our thoughts. We need consciousness to pay attention to our reasons for doing things. Conscious reasons can be subjected to a sort of “quality control” that unconscious reasons are screened off from. For Dennett human beings are powerful thinking beings because they can submit their own thinking to analysis and quality control.

And of course Daniel Kahneman’s work on type I (fast, unconscious) vs type II (slow, conscious) thinking came up. Poeppel pointed out that sometimes type I thinking is not just faster, but better than type II. To which Dennett replied that if you are about to have brain surgery you might prefer the surgeon to make considered decisions based on his type II system rather than quick type I decisions. Of course, which system does a better job is probably situation dependent, and at any rate is an empirical question.

Carroll asked whether it is actually possible to distinguish conscious from unconscious thoughts, to which both Poeppel and Goldstein replied yes, and we are getting better at it. Indeed, this has important practical applications, as for instance anesthesiologists have to be able to tell whether there is conscious activity in a patient’s brain before an operation begins. However, the best evidence indicates that consciousness is a systemic (emergent?) property, since it disappears below a certain threshold of brain-wide activity.

Dennett brought up the example of the common experience of thinking that we understand something, until we say it out loud and realize we don’t. No mystery there: we are bringing in “more agents” (or, simply, more and more deliberate cognitive resources) into the task, so it isn’t surprising that we get a better outcome as a result.

Rosenberg asked if we were going to talk about the “mysterian” stuff about consciousness, things like qualia, aboutness, and what is it like to be a bat. I commented that the only sensible lesson I could take out of Nagel’s famous bat-paper is not that first person experiences are scientifically inexplicable, but that the only way to have them is to actually have them. Dennett, however, remarked that he pointedly asked Nagel: if you had a twin brother who was a philosopher, would you be able to imagine what it is like to be your brother? To which Nagel, unbelievably I think, answered no. Of course we are perfectly capable of imagining what it is like to be another biologically relevantly similar to ourselves being.

Flanagan brought up Colin McGinn’s “mysterian” position about consciousness, pointing out that there is no equivalent in neuroscience or philosophy of mind of, say, Godel’s incompleteness theorems or Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle. Similarly, Owen was dismissive (rightly, I think) of David Chalmers’ dualism based on mere conceivability (of unconscious zombies who behave like conscious beings, in his case).

I asked, provocatively, if people around the table think that consciousness is an illusion. Jerry immediately answered yes, but the following discussion clarified things a bit. Turns out — and Dennett was of great help here — that when Jerry says that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain functioning he actually means something remarkably close to what I mean by consciousness being an emergent property of the brain. We settled on “phenomenon,” which is the result of evolution, and which has functions and effects. This, of course, as opposed to the sense of “epiphenomenon” in which something has no effect at all, and which in this context leads to an incoherent view of consciousness (but one that the “mysterians” really like).

At this point Rosenberg introduced yet another controversial topic: aboutness. How is it possible, from a naturalist’s perspective, to have “Darwinian systems” like our brains that are capable of semantic reference (i.e., meaning)? Terrence Deacon responded that the content of thought, its aboutness, is not a given brain state, but brain states are necessary to make semantic reference possible. Don Ross, in this context, invoked externalism: a brain state in itself doesn’t have a stable meaning or reference, that stable meaning is acquired only by taking into account the largest system that includes objects external to us. Dennett’s example was that externalism is obviously true for, say, money: bank accounts have numbers that represent money, but they are not money, and the system works only because the information internal to the bank’s computers refer to actual money present in the outside world.

Rosenberg seemed bothered by the use of intentional language in describing aboutness. But Dennett pointed out that intentionality is needed to explain a certain category of phenomena, just like — I suggested — teleological talk is necessary (or at the very least very convenient) to refer to adaptations and natural selection. And here I apparently hit the nail on the head: Rosenberg rejects the (naturalistic) concept of teleology, while Dennett and I accept. That is why Rosenberg has a problem with intentional language and Dennett and I don’t. 

And that, as it turns out, was a pretty good place to end the second day. Tomorrow: scientism and the relationship between science and philosophy.


  1. Very interesting Massimo, I'm looking forward to the scientism discussion.
    Could you point me in the direction of the scientific (as opposed to philosophical) taking apart of the Libbett experiments you mentioned?

  2. As to "free will" I think a Dennett-style reconciliation with physical determinism can be reached if we treat it as a legal or moral concept: somebody is free if they aren't inappropriately (normatively speaking) coerced or constrained by others. Says nothing about whether voluntary action is determined by physical/biological natures.

    1. I have long said something vaguely similar to Dennett in some ways, but definitely different in others. I agree with the degrees of "free will" idea, but think that, because of that, we need to go beyond the idea of "free will vs. determinism." Related to that, and this post of Massimo's, I also mention that we need to do more with the idea of free will as an emergent property; this idea of degrees ties in with that, too. And, I hint that (per Kaufmann) we maybe need to move beyond being locked into the idea of "responsibility," too: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/01/mu-to-free-will.html

  3. Very interesting. I have read some popular-press books that address some of these issues, (discredited for other reasons) Jonathan Lehrer's How We Decide and Dan Ariely's The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. Michael Shermer has digested some of this for the unwashed as well.

    Ariely's Predictably Irrational is my current read, and I think some of his research may be of interst to the panel. We like to assume we "think" rationally because the purpose of thought is to reason, but he has found otherwise in his studies.

  4. That human decision making is predominantly unconscious is well aligned with findings from computer science, which suggests computers can be made arbitrarily competent in a domain without benefit of consciousness. So why would consciousness (and not just "awareness") evolve? Seemingly primarily, and perhaps solely, for the purposes of communication. It was advantageous to have a compressed, "good enough" way to communicate to others over a relatively low bandwidth medium (acoustics). So a language-based "explanation engine" evolved that is grafted onto our unconscious substrate (similar to what we have to do for our computer systems when we endeavor to have them succinctly communicate to humans reasons for what are in actuality a mass of inscrutable "big data"-based calculations).

    Then what's interesting is that the explanation engine can also communicate back to "us." So it seems it can indeed alter the operations of the unconscious to some degree ("self-inception") as hinted at by some of the workshop attendees. And because we take ourselves to be our explanation engines, my guess is that this complex recursion between our self (explanation engine) and our subconscious is what reinforces our sense of free will.


  5. Great summary. My interest in naturalism lies in its implications for social policy, specifically inequality and fairness. It seems to me the basic political divide in America is between those who feel people generally deserve their lot in life (whether wealth or poverty) because they have chosen it as free agents, and those who feel people may have chosen it to some degree, but are ultimately products of genes and environment, and thus not *really* deserving of wealth or poverty.

    My own view is that the latter is true, but utility requires a degree of deterrence and reward, both to promote desired behavior, as well as to acknowledge practical limits in social management. However, in setting policy, such as redistributive benefits, progressive taxation, or criminal justice, the degree of human agency one imagines to exist, and - more importantly - where they got that agency, seems highly important.

    It seems to me that the concept of "privilege" with regards to class, manifesting itself not only in property wealth, but in all manner of learned human development - cognition, self-control, vocabulary, etc. - is highly determinative of social equity. For me, naturalism points us to a view of human nature in which we, as highly developmentally determined conscious agents, are morally responsible not only for our own actions, but just as much for those of our fellow man, benefiting as we have by mere circumstance within not only a shared system of governance, but human evolution as a whole.

    The difficulty comes in designing optimal policy for all of this. But the issue of fairness is at the core an issue of how we view human development and agency. My interest in naturalism is in the degree to which it informs this central issue, and how to better clarify it.

  6. [from Matthias, posted on his behalf]

    I was very curious about the results of the free will discussion at the workshop. The material you present in the lines above evoked some thoughts I´d like to present here.
    You´ve written that some views of free will are downright incoherent. Was there a consensus at the workshop which are these incoherent views?
    I would agree with Coyne that there are people who think that free will is the idea that you are able to make decisions independently of your genes, your environments and their interactions.
    I agree with Weinberg and Dennett that I may never arrive — given the same circumstances — to a different decision, but it is still my decision. My decisions are my own despite being the result of the lifelong gene-environment interactions.
    The connection from emergent properties to free will was the thing I was the most curious about. You´ve written the following: Free will is an emergent property of the brain in a similar sense to which the second law is an emergent property of statistical mechanics. If it is an emergent property in the strong sense, it would follow laws respectively regularities that are independent from the laws on the lower level. So our decisions wouldn´t be dependent on the motions of the matter in our brain. The emergent property would come to life because of that matter, but after its birth, it has a life of its own. And here´s my main point: The only way to make decisions intelligible is to connect them to certain regularities, regardless of whether these regularities are on the lower level or on an emergent level. If there were no regularities, decisions would be arbitrary. What would be your vision if some day we will discover that free will really is an emergent property of the brain?
    What laws / regularities would you expect? Was there the talk of emergent properties in connection to free will at the workshop? If yes, what were the positions?

    Questions summary:
    - Was there a consensus at the workshop which are these incoherent views?
    - What would be your vision if some day we will discover that free will really is an emergent property of the brain?
    - What laws / regularities would you expect?
    - Was there the talk of emergent properties in connection to free will at the workshop? If yes, w3hat were the positions?

  7. Libet showed readiness in cortical activity before awareness of a decision to act, and more of it before the action itself. The subtle builds to become obvious, and can in any event be diverted in that build up by a simple change of mind,
    particularly if the subject is shown the scan building
    and freely decides otherwise. There is merely an ongoing
    cycle of neurons representing functions, with inevitable
    delays and transitions. Things don't happen immediately and totally attentively, they build.

  8. Richard,

    > The behaviour of a system at a lower level entails a higher level phenomenon if the higher level phenomenon could in principle be seen in a simulation of the lower level entities. <

    That's not what Weinberg and the others meant by entailment. They meant logical entailment, which means that if X is sufficient for Y to occur, then Y will occur any time there is X.

    > would you call these cases of emergence? <

    Yes, the bird example is a case of weak emergence, because we have a straightforward way to go from the lower to the higher level. Phase transitions are not like that, as explained in my recent posts, so they are candidates for strong emergence.


    > Letting philosophy frame the discussion is as false as letting any other magical thinking and ideology. Ultimately, philosophy is just magical thinking:"words matter" - they don't. <

    I'm getting tired of this sort of anti-intellectualism, so I'll call it for what it is: bullshit.


    > You´ve written that some views of free will are downright incoherent. Was there a consensus at the workshop which are these incoherent views? <

    Yes, anything that invokes contra-causality: if free will is supposed to float free of any causal interaction than the idea is incoherent, at least in light of naturalism.

    > If it is an emergent property in the strong sense, it would follow laws respectively regularities that are independent from the laws on the lower level. So our decisions wouldn´t be dependent on the motions of the matter in our brain. <

    No, that doesn't follow. New properties come into existence in complex systems, but they still come into existence because of the lower level properties of individual components of the system. Think of "temperature": it requires a large number of particles, as single particles don't have temperature, just kinetic energy.

    For your other questions you might have to wait until the video comes out...

    1. As far as humans having consciousness, I think it is an illusion, an illusion due to human hyperactive agency detection that experiences a false-positive agency detection of itself as an agent.

      This provides an explanation for the perceived continuity of self over a lifetime, the self-agency pattern recognition doesn't have the resolution to perceive changes. This is probably because the agency-pattern recognition neuroanatomy uses itself as the pattern to compare to. The self will always map onto the self with perfect fidelity (unless the specific neuroanatomy that detects that one-to-one mapping is damaged (perhaps the cause of impostor syndrome or the Cotard delusion).

      I think there is a misunderstanding of what “emergent phenomena” means. A book is a collections of atoms of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. The ideas that are instantiated by the printing in a book are dependent on the exact patterns of how hydrogen, carbon and oxygen are arranged, but the ideas in a book are not derivable from the properties of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. There are a very great number of possible books that are derivable from the properties of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Only a very tiny few will instantiate intelligible ideas.

      Similarly, the human brain that develops from a lifetime of neurodevelopment exhibits only a tiny subset of the possible emergent properties that another collection of cells from a different lifetime of neurodevelopment could instantiate.

      The number of possible emergent phenomena for something as large as a human brain is gigantic, on the order of n! (n factorial) where n is the number of atoms of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen (something like 10^26 factorial). The symmetry breaking that occurs to generate a single emergent human brain out of all those possibilities is enormous.

  9. Still the emergence red herring. Just aggregate from hydrogen & helium (or their constituents) after the Big bang all the way to humans, to understand how things become complicated from basics. Emergence is a total myth, just track history to understand the potential of the constiuents to aggregate. Amazing such company can't see through that.

  10. DaveK,

    I may or may not be sharing the view of emergence of the host of this blog of certain people at that meeting - have not read enough of the previous posts to be sure - but it is fairly clear that emergence is not a myth. At worst it is a useful concept.

    Our mind is an emergent property of a bunch of molecules and electric charges, and Mona Lisa's smile is an emergent property of a bunch of colour particles. Of course there is nothing magical between the molecules and these large-scale phenomena, but nobody can seriously say that phenomena like obsessive-compulsive disorder or confirmation bias are "only" molecules and are best understood by looking at molecule interaction, or that history of art should proceed primarily by counting specks of pigment. I am surprised that one can read the above blog post and make some of the comments that I see here.

    1. They are very complicated arrangements of constituents of molecules. You are over simplifying those 'phenomena' as nothing more than constituents. In fact, any attempt to track their history in making a person from the big bang is going to be extremely complicated, and so people are clearly not merely molecules (or constituents).

  11. Dave,

    > Emergence is a total myth, just track history to understand the potential of the constiuents to aggregate. Amazing such company can't see through that. <

    Amazing you can't seem to get out of your mental block. The very fact that "such company" takes the concept seriously enough - including a Nobel in physics - is not enough to even consider the idea? Wow.


    > As far as humans having consciousness, I think it is an illusion, an illusion due to human hyperactive agency detection <

    You realize that what you just wrote borders into incoherence? We are fooled by us into thinking that we are agents? Hmm...

    > This provides an explanation for the perceived continuity of self over a lifetime <

    Yes. A simpler explanation is that the self does indeed continue over a lifetime.

    1. that's not an answer any more than emergence is anything more than aggregation of constituents.

    2. Except we know that the “self” of today is not self-identical to the “self” of yesterday. We know that many brain cells have died, been replaced (or not), new connections made, old connections lost. We know that there has been change, even if we can't perceive it. Other people can perceive changes in us, even if we can't.

      If we know there has been change, but we are unable to perceive that change, the problem must be with our perception. We know that there are optical illusions; artifacts of our evolved visual pattern recognition systems. Why would there not be cognitive illusions or agency perception illusions; artifacts of our evolved agency recognition systems which evolved to be biased because false negative detection of predators is much more costly than false positives. Hyperactive agency detection is the basis for the perception of supernatural agents causing weather, crop growth, earth quakes and the demons many perceive to haunt the world. Why would our self-perception be immune to hyperactive agency detection?

      The usual way to perceive something is to use pattern recognition and compare the thing to be perceived to a template. That is how visual perception works, the “templates” are generated implicitly by neuronal remodeling of the connections between light detecting cells and signal processing in the visual cortex. When the visual pattern recognition system perceives an impossible object, we call it an optical illusion. Many sensory systems use a template-pattern recognition system. Is there an alternative for agency detection? That evolved from earlier template-pattern recognition systems?

      I appreciate that thinking about certain ideas is difficult (or even impossible) at first. We need to have neuroanatomy that can instantiate those thoughts, and that neuroanatomy only develops via neuronal plasticity and remodeling of already existing neuroanatomy. I think this is why learning requires a path, whereby the “idea templates” and “idea pattern recognition” are modified (or generated de novo) until they match the ideas that are trying to be thought about. Only when the neuroanatomy that can instantiate the ideas exists can the ideas be thought about.

    3. Amazing you can't reply at all to what I write, except to play up with rhetoric and abuse.

  12. Boy, the philosophers-ideologues-theologians are sure hung up on "morality." Why not study just study social behavior and reciprocity -- which seems to be what everyone is so hung up on, i.e., I want to make sure I get stuff when I do stuff. It's a silly topic.

    Here is a single fact we all need to organize around - behavior appears to be triggered in 150 milliseconds (references available). Any talk about morality/reciprocal behavior/punishment has to do so in the context of this fact -- and many others.

  13. Here is the central challenge to anyone who cares to engage, rather than run away from, the best brain science: behavior appears to be driven in 150 milliseconds completely reactively and unconsciously - by what is called "survival circuits."

    This is a "beautiful" and "elegant" set of results and theories in the same sense of physics since it leads to natural continuities with other species and biology > organic chemistry > chemistry > laws of thermodynamics > physics.

    The lack of any brain science in this session is conspicuous by it's absence and suggest the philosopher ideologues conspired to deny the facts. It is embarrassing that the physicists would ever dare to speak on matters best left to neuroscientists. Why so silly?

    You would think Dawkins, at least, would have raised his hand early and demanded some brain research data. duh

  14. Very odd. Our comments have been blocked by Jerry Coyne from his blog. Fair enough, free thinkers are not immune to defensive fears.

    However, on his blog post on this conference he talks about looking forward to learning more about physics from one of the attendees. Well, OK but the "answers" to behavior, "morality" free will, etc lie not in physics but brain research, yet free thinkers pile on each other to learn about astronomy and advanced physic while running away from the best brain research.

    Even the citing of Libet is really way behind the curve, there is so much new research speaking to all the issues but the "best and the brightest" want to sit around and parse philosophical ideas, talk about advanced physics and morality!?

    It is a good example of how powerful socially confined ideas and discourse can be. Forget quantum theory -- learn about vision research!

  15. brain4biz,

    > the philosophers-ideologues-theologians are sure hung up on "morality." <

    There wasn't a single theologian, and quite a number of scientists, at the workshop (including neuroscientists, btw). What the hell are you talking about?

    > Here is a single fact we all need to organize around - behavior appears to be triggered in 150 milliseconds <

    If you are referring to the Libet experiments, they have demonstrably nothing to do with the sort of deliberate thinking we are talking about.


    > the best brain science: behavior appears to be driven in 150 milliseconds completely reactively and unconsciously - by what is called "survival circuits." <

    That is not at all what "the best brain science" says. That figure is limited to specific types of non-conscious, reactive, behaviors. Human beings are more complicated than that.

    > The lack of any brain science in this session is conspicuous <

    Except that there was no such lack. David Poeppel, for one, is a neuroscientist, and that's also Simon DeDeo's area.

    > You would think Dawkins, at least, would have raised his hand early and demanded some brain research data. duh <

    Yes, just like I would have thought you read the report before commenting. Duh.


    > Except we know that the “self” of today is not self-identical to the “self” of yesterday. <

    Of course, but that's no counter-argument. Just because something changes over time it doesn't mean that something doesn't exist.

    > Why would there not be cognitive illusions or agency perception illusions <

    There are, they are just not as universal as you seem to think.

    > Is there an alternative for agency detection? <

    Of course there is, plenty of animals do without it.

  16. Human exceptionalism is an ideological sales scam. The brain did not invent a separate set of processes for different kinds of behavior and for a different species.

    Why is there no report of the brain researchers participating or any brain research being cited?

    Higher order concepts and natural language are being abandoned by brain research. The HOC include: decision making, emotions, consciousness, choice, personality, etc. But apparently all present would rather speculate about physics than learn some brain physiology.

    All matters related to behavior, in humans, by definition are a branch of psychiatry. In other species animal ethology. Physics, philosophy, etc are no more relevant in discussing brain processes than for any other physiological and medically based topic. How much is philosophy and physics relevant to knowledge of other organs of the body? Zero.

    The brain is just another organ of the body. duh

  17. [from Matthias]

    "New properties come into existence in complex systems, but they still come into existence because of the lower level properties of individual components of the system. Think of "temperature": it requires a large number of particles, as single particles don't have temperature, just kinetic energy."

    I would agree with you that new properties come into existence because of the lower level properties. But once they emerged, don't the higher level properties follow also new emerged regularities? From that would follow that the higher levels could have for example probabilistic laws while the lower level could have deterministic laws?

  18. Dear Massimo,
    now I am property of google and I´m looking forward for your thoughts on the above. Thank you for posting representatively.

  19. Dave,

    > There is no definition of emergence. <

    It's in this post:


    The 6-point definition in the middle.


    > Pray tell what are these exceptional human behaviors and where did they originate genetically and ecologically? <

    Don't know about the latter, but you are using one such ability: language.

    > Ah, so censorship, not because the ideas contradict your beliefs but because of "style." <

    Dude, it's my blog, if you don't like the rules, you can go write somewhere else. The internet is vast...

    1. That's not a definition, its a errant mess, as explained by me repeatedly.

  20. Massimo,
    I would agree with you that new properties come into existence because of the lower level properties. But once they emerged, don't the higher level properties follow also new emerged regularities? Wouldn't follow from this that the higher levels could have for example probabilistic laws while the lower level could have deterministic laws?

    1. Matthias,

      > Wouldn't follow from this that the higher levels could have for example probabilistic laws while the lower level could have deterministic laws? <

      Yes, it would. In general, I think that above fundamental physics pretty much everything becomes probabilistic.

  21. Massimo, you need to see if you can't get a "like" feature here ... your most recent comment to Dave is definitely worthy.

  22. Having read more of the background on the definition of emergence in the earlier posts, it only reinforces for me that the notion of algorithmic complexity has to be at the heart of any rigorous definition of emergence (at least a necessary if not sufficient definitional element).

    Singularities are just one clue that we won't find compact (in space and/or time) algorithms that can predict phenomena from constituent parts. Hyper-sensitivity to initial conditions (chaos) and the curse of dimensionality are other drivers. As a practical rule of thumb, whenever someone says we "can in principle" predict collective behaviors but "in practice can't" it just implies that algorithmic complexity is high.

    Of course, as others have hinted at in the comments, there is an asymmetry that should be recognized: one may not be able to prove that there does not exist a more compressible algorithm to predict a phenomenon; however, one can definitively prove that it does exist by inventing it.

    Algorithmic complexity may not be sufficient, however, for an appealing definition of emergence since simply not being able to predict collective behaviors in a algorithmically compact way from elements would include phenomena that we may not want to categorize as truly emergent (e.g., the N body problem). So this may may be where we also apply the idea of basing emergence on the condition of needing to use very different predictive models with respect to the collective vs.the elements, which is mentioned in the previous posts/comments.

    And in both parts of such a compound definition, 1) algorithmic complexity of predicting the behaviors of the whole, and 2) the difference in the types of predictive algorithmic techniques that are applied between the whole and the parts, it is a matter of degree, and in principle could be measured. Such metrics might allow us to actually rank phenomena on an emergence scale rather than forcing us to either place a phenomenon in the emergent category or not.

  23. Your and Dennett's teleological response to the childhood trauma and tumor cases strikes me as strange, because it is not clear to me that bad or harmful influences amount to "more constraints." As determinists, we have to be especially careful about what we mean by one cause being more of a "constraint" than another.

    Someone who's suffered trauma or has a tumor might be less predictable than an ordinary human. They might exhibit more varied behavior on average. And they might have, in total, fewer distinct causal influences on their behaviors. Yet you call them "more constrained," presumably on the grounds that they have less desirable or less ordinary constraints than do most people. A visual stimulus and a brain tumor can both determine (given my prior brain state) that my volitional drives will respond in a specific way, but we are more inclined to call the latter a 'constraint,' either because it is less biologically typical or simply because it conflicts with the expected aims of ordinary individuals.

    I suspect typicalness is a red herring here. If a random brain tumor caused me to be much more compassionate, we'd intuit that my freedom is diminished. But if I instead put a mechanical implant in my brain to produce the same effect by the same neurological pathways, to improve my moral character, it would be far less clear that my 'free will' ends up hindered, even though implants are far less biologically normal than tumors. The biggest factor causing me to think of the tumor but not the implant as a 'constraint' is that the former is framed as undesirable; but what if medical science advanced to the point that I could use highly targeted radiation to create a benign tumor serving the same function as the implant? The assumption that behavior-modifying tumors constitute 'constraints' might evaporate overnight.

    So our liking a determiner seems to play a big role in whether we view it as a 'constraint.' But since our desires and preferences are themselves determined by our brains, and can be altered or manipulated, there seems to be no 'view from nowhere' from which to stably and consistently sort the desirable influences from the constraints. Moreover, in the process we seem to have committed ourselves to saying that one is more free the more attractive are one's chains; a complete determiner of our actions makes us freer than an indeterministic (e.g., metaphysically probabilistic) antecedent, provided we (or some idealized human evaluator) like it more. Counterintuitiveness of this sort is a much bigger problem for compatibilists who rely heavily on the intuitiveness of their account to justify their very use of terms like 'free will.'

    (Personally, I think our intuitions about what kind of 'freedom' or 'control' we want break down and yield no clear results in many cases. Judging by my own intuitions and anecdotal encounters, the evidence that folk psychology is wholly deterministic seems to me rather mixed. The apparent lack of a unified concept is a lot of what inclines me toward a radical Nagel-style incompatibilism / noncognitivism.)

    The problem of sorting 'freeing' determiners from 'constraining' determiners suggests to me that 'free will,' at best, unhelpfully conflates a neural system's predictability, its executive (in particular, deliberative) involvement in behavior, its biologically 'normal' functioning, its tendency to achieve its own desired aims, and its tendency to achieve 'normal' human aims. These are all very different variables, and binding them up into a single package to try to appease and adequately mirror a culturally particular (and indeed substantially theological) decision-making discourse seems to me unenlightening, if not actively misleading. Perhaps I'll feel less uneasy when people follow your suggestion and more decisively switch over from 'free will' to 'volition.'

    1. Some very interesting thoughts, starting with the "typicalness" issue. But, not speaking for Massimo's POV, just me, I think "constraint" can legitimately be used. For example, take another brain tumor, that has clearly flattened the patient's range of emotional affect vs. pre-tumor mental state. That person is "constrained." Therefore, while "liking" or "disliking" an effect may at sometimes lead to a judgment call, not always.

      The "view from nowhere"? I've commented on another thread that this, like free will, should perhaps be approached in a manner of degrees rather than an absolute nonexistence.

      That said, I'm with you on the paragraph in parentheses, but for partially different reasons. I think we make our judgments on the desirability, or not, of certain types of freedom or control based on a short-term temporal focus. Ergo, per the pseudo-Chinese proverb with the repetitive phrase at the last line of each event, "Could be good, could be bad," we don't really know on issue of volition, often.

      And, I'm with you on the last paragraph about the theological influence that still seems to pervade traditional discussions of free will. Heck, Massimo himself has admitted here before that the "responsibility" issue is a driver, for him, on his stance on this issue. And, with that, I once again recommend a reading of Kaufman's "Without Guilt and Justice." http://www.amazon.com/Without-Justice-Walter-Arnold-Kaufmann/product-reviews/0385286961/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_btm?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

    2. What is it about the flattened affect, precisely, that makes this a 'constraint'?

      If the assumption is simply that a reduced range of behavior or experience implies a reduction of one's freedom, then would you say that a tumor that increased the volatility and diversity of one's emotions would constitute an enhancement of one's freedom?

      And what if I read a book that causes me to change my outlook on life, depriving me of a lot of life's simple joys and flattening my affect? Is the book (or the informtion I gained from the book) a constraint on my freedom? If not, in what generically relevant way does the book case differ from the tumor case?

    3. Given that our volition involves both emotional and rational elements, a lessening of a range of emotional sensitivity, analysis, insight, etc., a "flattening," I think would be seen by most all people as a constraint.

      That said, given that I said some changes could be "liberating," I don't know why you have an objection to the other side of the coin, that some changes that seem constraining ... may actually be constraining. Folks wisdom or whatever isn't ALWAYS wrong, you know.

    4. I wouldn't separate free will and volition. The exercise of sufficient free choice by presenting ourselves with a range of options is just volition applied to options as one process. We present sufficient options to oursleves to be considered free to decide, and we voluntariy act upon them. Thought precedes action and responsibility follows.

    5. Gadfly: I'm not saying we have no intuitions about these cases. I'm just skeptical that any reasonably simple and objective criterion can capture those intuitions. You've provided no such criterion, beyond 'just assume our intuitions are basically right.' Hence I don't see much of a point in importing a gerrymandered or frequently unintuitive notion of 'free will' into psychological or neurological discourse. Possibly even our concept 'volition' only ultimately captures a species of brain activity in a very approximate way.

    6. As I said above and elsewhere, your answer is in the evolution of an anatomy that suits its environment. We have well demonstrated capacities for rationality and processing of environmental realities (even though these are our own constructs). 'Intuition' evolved, and we either have confidence in its rational use by humans or we do not, based on past evidence. You, apparently, do not.

    7. Fortunately, confidence comes in degrees. Equally fortunately, we can have confidence in some intuitions without having equivalent confidence in all of them. Even if volition, or for that matter 'free' volition, is not a natural kind, there may have been evolutionary benefits to thinking in terms of categories like 'free action' and 'constrained action' as though they were very sharply defined. And we can reconstruct more sophisticated versions of these categories for legal or biomedical or philosophical purposes. But our intuitions rarely, if ever, confer upon us direct and unmediated access to their own neurological underpinnings. There's no evolutionary reason for them to do so.

    8. Good points, but to save time, my reply is to have a read of the free book here and think again www.thehumandesign.net

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