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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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

This Isn’t the Free Will You’re Looking For

by Steve Neumann

In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are traveling into the most “wretched hive of scum and villainy” that is the city of Mos Eisley in order to find a smuggler who can hide them, R2-D2, and C-3PO from the Empire. At one point, they are stopped at a checkpoint by Imperial Stormtroopers who are looking to recover the stolen technical plans of the Death Star that R2-D2 is carrying. Obi-Wan uses a Jedi mind trick to divert their attention, telling them “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” 

In a paper entitled “Freedom and Control,” philosophers Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum [1] have attempted to capture free will for those who are libertarian about it — those who hold that, since humans do have free will, determinism must be false. But what they end up doing, in my view, is arguing for a new species of compatibilism; except in this case, free will is compatible with causation (properly understood) and not determinism. And to paraphrase old Ben Kenobi, I don’t think this is the free will libertarians are looking for.

Mumford and Anjum argue that the libertarian can have free will “without requiring that agents step outside of the causal laws.” If libertarians could achieve this, it’d be the Holy Grail of metaphysics. But I think the authors implicitly recognize that such a goal might not be possible when they write that they can “supply a variety of libertarianism worth having,” echoing Daniel Dennett. [Italics mine.]

Mumford and Anjum claim to have secured both freedom and control — or what are called Alternate Possibilities (the ability to have done otherwise) and Ultimate Authorship (one is the ultimate author of one’s own decisions that lead to actions, or “causal responsibility”), respectively — by arguing for a view of causation that is somewhere between “necessity and pure possibility,” where possibility can be understood as akin to randomness [2]. They maintain that a strict dichotomy between necessity and randomness is a false one, and they note that there is a third possibility that goes by the  name of “causal dispositionalism.” In other words, they deny both causal determinism and causal necessitation. [3]

Here’s a very simplistic diagram of the basic background to the problem:

Fixed Past => Present Possibilities/Choices => Future

Now, surely most of us can agree that the past is fixed — we can’t change it; what happened, happened. And, all of us experience the fact that, at any given moment, we seem to have a near limitless number of possibilities available to us when making a decision. The problem, however, comes in when we try and figure out what to make of the future — is it fixed, or is it open? Do past events completely cause or determine our choices in the present, even though we may feel like we have many possibilities available to us?

Mumford and Anjum argue, echoing Aristotle, that “a cause can be thought of as something that tends towards an effect of a certain kind,” that it is disposed toward a certain effect — hence the name. With this definition, they further claim that we can separate the ideas of causal production and causal necessitation by “drawing attention to the possibility of a particular variety of interference that applies to all natural causal processes.” In other words, causes don’t necessarily produce their signature effects. This idea of “interference” is where they hope to help the libertarian locate free will by showing that alternate possibilities really exist. 

For purposes of my critique, I’ll use one of the examples Mumford and Anjum cite: philosopher J.L. Austin’s famous thought experiment of a golfer sinking a putt. They note that “the ball would not have sunk had a gust of wind come along just as it neared the hole, or a squirrel might have jumped on the ball, or a twig might have deflected it. These alternate possibilities are all real.” The wind, the squirrel, and the twig are all examples of the interference they refer to in the context of causal dispositionalism. 

In the case of Austin’s golfer, it’s easy to see how alternate possibilities could be secured: it’s true that before he attempts the putt it seems as though there are many possible outcomes: a sudden gust of wind could come along just as the ball nears the hole; a squirrel could run across the green, knocking the ball off its trajectory; or the golfer himself could have a heart attack just as he swings his club. These are all very real possibilities — interferers, in Mumford and Anjum’s lexicon. Additionally, the golfer is employing his best causal powers in his attempt to sink the putt, and these powers are disposed toward the outcome of the golf ball falling into the hole; so they also conclude that the golfer is the ultimate author of his actions. They summarize their position by saying that “in exercising our causal powers, we exercise our free agency.”

But this doesn’t seem quite right. I’m ready to agree that we exercise our agency by exercising our causal powers — where agency means the ability to voluntarily act upon our own reasons and motives — but to me that still doesn’t mean we have free agency, at least not in the libertarian sense.

At the moment of an action, there may indeed be several possibilities available to an agent; however, these possibilities aren’t freely chosen in the sense the libertarian wants: for instance, each of these possibilities is itself subject to its own causal chain which no agent can step outside of — causal powers are still comprised of causes, deterministic or not. And if the interferers that contribute to these alternate possibilities originate outside the agent (a malicious squirrel), thwarting the agent’s expressed desire (of sinking a putt), then the agent has no ultimate control. And even if the interferers arise within the agent’s own mind, either as a counter-desire to his initial one, or as an external influence that works in his mind to alter the initial desire, then where is the freedom in that? The case of the external interferers doesn’t seem to pose much of a problem — I think most people can accept that a sudden gust of wind altering the trajectory of the golfer’s putt is something that is completely out of his control (and this is one of Mumford and Anjum’s arguments against causal necessitarianism). So let’s focus on the internal interferers. 

Let’s say Austin’s golfer decides to position his thumb a certain way on his club just as he’s about to make his putt. However, right before he swings the club, he has the thought to move his thumb into a different position; but what is the cause of that thought? The thought to change his thumb position simply occurred to him. Where is the freedom in that? The libertarian assertion that, even though our golfer can’t control the thoughts that come into his mind, he still has control of his actions once the thoughts occur, doesn’t seem to cut it — the golfer’s decision to change his thumb position still wasn’t freely chosen in the sense libertarians want. He may have had a subsequent thought that approved of the thought to change his thumb position, but then one can ask where that thought came from, and so on ad infinitum

I think the line of reasoning that Mumford and Anjum pursue ultimately fails to secure the kind of freedom libertarians believe is possible — and which they really want. I think that to say there is “ample space for causation to occupy between necessity and pure contingency” makes sense, and it shows that an agent has alternative possibilities in the face of a decision. And the argument that one is the author of one’s own actions because one is the causal producer of the effects one desires is an accurate and workable conception of agency. But one cannot be the ultimate author of one’s actions, even if causal necessity is false, because the alternatives — dispositionalism and pure contingency — permit one to be only the proximate author of one’s actions. Compatibilists about free will are okay with this, but not the libertarians.

Pure contingency (randomness), I think everyone agrees, doesn’t allow one to be the author of one’s actions, so let’s return to the issue of causal dispositionalism. Here, even if one is acting according to one’s own singular character, to one’s own developed reasons and motives — those things that dispose the agent toward certain effects — that character, and those reasons and motives, still have their own causal history outside of which no agent can step. The reasons and motives that make up the agent’s character didn’t pull themselves up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness, to paraphrase Nietzsche’s take on an agent being causa sui. The agent hasn’t freely chosen those reasons and motives, even if she has come to approve of them and take “ownership” of them.

For a libertarian to feel that she has free will, she needs to feel that she has real alternate possibilities available to her when making decisions, and that she is the author or originator of her actions in a meaningful way. But the biggest obstacle to this has always been the perceived failure of libertarian models of agency to explain how an agent could have done otherwise in exactly the same conditions. Some have argued that the original set of circumstances will always obtain, every time you “roll back the film” of the action in question. Others have argued that, due to the inherent unpredictability of the universe, the original set of circumstances may not always obtain for the action in question. But even in the latter case, even if quantum indeterminacy obtains every time we roll back the film, ensuring a slightly different result, the agent can’t claim to have “freedom” then either: an agent can’t be the author or originator of a completely random event, at least not in the sense of having willed it.

In the concluding section of their paper, Mumford and Anjum write that the principle of Alternate Possibilities was “threatened by a world of necessity,” and that the principle of Ultimate Authorship was “threatened by a world of pure contingency,” and that the causal dispositionalist framework they use in their argument “provides a metaphysical basis highly conducive to the libertarian’s needs: one in which the agent has both freedom and control.” But unfortunately I have to resort to a Clintonesque parsing of the word “freedom” and say that what they have actually secured is a compatibilist’s freedom, not a libertarian’s. They correctly note that the “more empowered an agent is, the more freedom they gain,” but this is the kind of freedom that is conducive to the personal project of identifying, developing, and expanding one’s causal powers so that one can attain greater degrees of freedom in the sense of achieving real possibilities of life. It’s a valuable freedom, no doubt, and in reality the only one we have — and, in light of that, the only one worth having. 

________

[1] I’ve invited Mumford and Anjum to comment on this post, if they have the time. Hopefully they can set me straight if I’ve misread their paper!

[2] The actual formula used by the authors for the principle of Alternate Possibilities is stated as “for any free agent x, and action A performed by x in circumstances C at time t, then there was another action A’, where A does not equal A’, such that x could have performed A’ at t and not A.” Though they leave out “circumstances C” in the second clause, I’m assuming it is included for purposes of my analysis.

[3] I haven’t read their book on causal dispositionalism, so I’m basing my critique on their summarized exposition of it in this current paper.

72 comments:

  1. Seems to me that the substitutability thing is a furphy in the free will debate.

    If I reason that X is the right thing to do, I want to do X and I intend to do X and yet I do Y, then that suggests the opposite of free will.

    I would suggest that agent causation under Naturalism would entail that I could have done the same action for the same reasons if the prior conditions had been different.

    All that would require is that my conscious processes are proximately causal and not sensitively dependent on prior conditions.

    That is not a mathematical impossibility.

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  2. And that is not to say that I buy Naturalism.

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  3. The point about sensitive dependency is, of course, that even libertarian free will must be dependent upon prior conditions in some way, ie perceptions, memory, reasoning ability, character etc.

    If a choice could be dependent upon these alone but not sensitively on the exact prior physical state of the brain then I can't see how that would differ from the everyday experience of free will.

    After all I, like most people, don't think my will is non-deterministic, I think that it is deterministic and that I am doing the determining.

    I would put into the mix Broad's famous definition of Libertarianism:

    We are now in a position to define what I will call "Libertarianism." This doctrine may be summed up in two propositions.

    Some (and it may be all) voluntary actions have a causal ancestor which contains as a cause-factor the putting-forth of an effort which is not completely determined in direction and intensity by occurrent causation.

    In such cases the direction and the intensity of the effort are completely determined by non-occurrent causation, in which the self or agent, taken as a substance or continuant, is the non-occurrent total cause. Thus, Libertarianism, as defined by me, entails Indeterminism, as defined by me; but the converse does not hold.


    He said that this was impossible, but I think that I can show it is possible by this definition.

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  4. Sorry, forgot the link for Broad's paper:

    http://www.ditext.com/broad/dil.html

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  5. I would also add the following premise:

    If Naturalism is true then a conscious intention is exactly descriptive of (as opposed to "produced by" or "emergent from" etc) some subset of our neural processing

    The corollary to this is Conscious intentions are proximately causal

    Incidentally Steve,, the article itself did not appear to be uploaded. Any chance we can get to see it so we know what we are commenting on?

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    1. Robin -

      Yeah, I'm not sure why the link won't work - I just tried it again from my notes. Below is where I found the paper, but it doesn't look to be accessible anymore.

      http://philpapers.org/rec/MUMFAC

      If I find a good link, I'll post it for you.

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    2. I was able to access it here http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.390.3198

      I notice that they repeat the Dennett furphy of "Ultimate Authorship".

      If someone claims that this describes the belief of most people about their volition then they need to back up that claim.

      I have discussed this widely over many years and have found that most people believe simply in proximate authorship, ie they will assert that their ideas, values, prejudices, reasoning powers relate to inheritance, upbringing, education, role models etc.

      It is as I say below, this whole area could do with a little more rigour.

      The other proposition they use is substitutability and this can have many forms.

      For most people who say "I could have done otherwise" they usually mean "If I had wanted to" or "if there had been any reason to" or "If I had known then what I know now" or some such condition and so they are rarely referring to the precise initial conditions.

      As I said before if, in the precise conditions, I might have done otherwise then I would have done other than what I intended and I would have considered that as the opposite of free will.

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    3. I think C D Broads "non-occurrent causation" where the agent is the cause is a better statement of the position.

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    4. I agree with your criticism of the paper, however I think the problem is that they just chose a bad example for illustrating it.

      The golfer example is always a red-herring because, unless the golfer believed himself to be infallible, a sink or a miss would both represent successful completions of his intention, which was to try to sink the ball.

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    5. If the golfer had intended to try to sink the putt and instead had taken a huge swipe and landed the ball in a water hazard and then thought to himself "now why the digamma did I do that?" then he would not have considered this an act of free will.

      This demonstrates that categorical substitutablity is the opposite of the common belief of what free will is.

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  6. Just one more thing before I go to bed. I have just been reading "The Grand Design" by Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking and they assure me that the past is not fixed and that I have to forget everything I thought I knew about time and causality.

    Pretty easy for me because I never thought I knew anything about time and causality.

    But that is one more little variable.

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    1. Careful; they are assuming that based on a scientific model which may or may not be in accordance with reality. Quantum mechanics is a delightful source of distortion in this regard.

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    2. Yes, I know - I was being a little light hearted but also pointing out that there is much that we don't know.

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    3. But the point is that we know the past is slightly indeterminate. Depending on what else we learn it may be that the past is massively indeterminate, to the extent even of which universe we are in or what are the precise laws of physics.

      So it is a little difficult to say that physics supports on thesis over another without knowing more.

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  7. No one can truly tell the past nor the future and between them is now. Have you ever tried to measure now? Where does it start and where does it end? What time is now and how long does it last? Can anyone truly tell us now? = is

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  8. Steve, per my critiques of compatibilism for trying to make itself compatible with determinism, as I continue to hold out hope for "something like free will," this is a form of compatibilism that I could find more acceptable than those old versions. It may not satisfy libertarians, but, the thought processes have at least some promise for others of us.

    On analogies, and one that kind of more directly gets to issues of consciousness, personality, etc.? Genetics and "tendencies toward" something.

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    1. While you are holding out for something like free will, can you demonstrate that we don't have it?

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    2. No, which is why I am an agnostic, although without reason to doubt matters of immediate experience I don't see why I should. The Moon may be secretly made of purple marshmallow which actively avoids detection and imitates rock, but I don't see why I should believe that either.

      But I can't understand why some would rush to assume that we don't have it when they cannot demonstrate any reason to believe so.

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    3. Well, with Free Will it's a little different than working out something that can be empirically investigated, don't you think? Even within it's long tradition, free will is terribly badly defined, not to mention how it fares against current science. Even though I reject compatibilistic models, I understand that they may represent what we best can come up with, apart from rejecting the terms altogether.

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    4. Alexander - can you give me any reason, any reason at all why I should doubt that I have just the sort of free will that I feel I have?

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    5. Per your later, below, I can't demonstrate that we either have it OR don't have it, Robin. We simply don't have enough knowledge about consciousness yet to say what is robustly defined as "free will" exists, or doesn't.

      I am confident that what I call "something like free will" will eventually get sufficient empirical support, but not for decades.

      And, again, Alexander, my response to determinism is similar to my response to the cosmological argument for the existence of god: Who/what determined the first determinor? More here: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-simplemindedness-of-determinism.html

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    6. And, here's a round-up of my series of blog posts on saying "mu" to the whole free will versus determinism debate and why. http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/02/this-month-in-philosophy-rejecting-old.html

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    7. @robin : Can you give me any reason, any reason at all to doubt that the freedom you feel may not be true?

      @gadfly : I'm not impressed by your self-proclaimed intellectual judo, I'm afraid. :) Are you saying that determinism isn't compatible with "something like" free-will? That determinism has a problem because it may have started somewhere? Or that determinism requires consciousness? That will sway no one.

      When I speak of determinism, I don't even buy quantum entanglement as some kind of freedom fighting hero; we're locked in. the freedom you feel is just the complexity of this fully and absolutely determined universe. We will never be able to know much at all about any state of the universe, so we treat it as random and free. Consciousness is equally determined. People, animals, rocks, matter, energy, the whole shebang.

      Also, the title of your post tries to ridicule a philosophical tradition that are several thousand years old with more variation in it than there are people who ever thought it, so I'd be much more humble about simple hand-waving exercises such as yours. "Determinism" may or may not be exactly what you think it is, and I'll hint you towards the title of the post in which we are commenting.

      Btw, when you say "like the young Wittgenstein, we should be quiet until we can say more" I should point out that it was necessary for the young Wittgenstein to say (and publish) perhaps wrong or misguided stuff for him to grow into the older Wittgenstein. Shutting up is rarely good advice. :)

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    8. Alexander, I'm saying the second. And if you seem to think that the cosmological argument for the existence of god has enough variation to avoid that hurdle, I disagree. Ditto on determinism.

      Otherwise, sorry, but I still find determinism to be simplistic under the hood. To riff from Wittgenstein to a near contemporary, Wolfgang Pauli, in many ways I think determinism is "not even wrong."

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    9. So, determinism has a problem because it might have started somewhere? How come? And what's it got to do with any cosmological argument for the existence of a god? I'm truly baffled at this. Could you please elaborate?

      Now, I agree that determinism is simple, but I don't understand your jumps from that to your conclusions?

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    10. Simple. The standard refutation of the cosmological argument is, "who caused the First Cause" or "who moved the Prime Mover"? I hope that you can see how easy the analogy is with determinism and "who/what determined the first determinor."

      If you can't, well, I've got gold in Fort Knox, or Rio Tinto mining timeshares where you are Down Under, to sell.

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    11. @gadfly : Where does the premise of a first mover come from? Not from me. I'm happy with infinity.

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  9. As I've noted before, this topic gives me a headache. I provide the following links for those who freely choose to explore them.

    http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/libertarianism.html
    http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/modest_libertarianism.html
    http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/extreme_libertarianism.html

    This is a site created by the astrophysicist and inventor Bob Doyle. His explications are straightforward, but obviously I cannot comment on whether his descriptions of the various positions is accurate. He's got a bagful of articles and links on this subject. Type "libertarianism" in the "Search" blog and go at it.

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  10. Great article, it actually helped me understand the more traditional compatiblist position better, even though I still think that the traditional position of compatiblism is very misleading in it's use of terms such as "freely choose" and "voluntary". Maybe it's too much of a hassle to remove those terms for good but maybe we can at least add in parenthesis what we mean by these terms.

    The compatiblism with a libertarian free will however just doesn't seem to work at all. I have to wonder though why people are so attached the idea when it has so little support for it, either empirically and logically.

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    1. I think both compatibilism and incompatibilism are plagued by misleading terms, vague definitions and loose arguments.

      I don't think that anybody has ever demonstrated (or even tried to demonstrate) that the free will which I feel I have is incompatible with physics.

      Largely the argument is stuck in the 18th century.

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    2. Much of the discussion is. On my blog, I've written three posts on the idea of saying "Mu" to the whole free will **versus** determinism debate.

      1. It's not polarities, it's a continuum, and one of individual actions, not entire mindsets.
      2. We still don't know what, exactly, "something like free will" might be, and we don't know enough of neuroscience to say that "free will" as robustly defined actually exists.
      3. Determinism has a basic internal, logical contradiction.

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  11. Compatibilism seems to beg the question of whether there is such a thing as uncaused events, events which are 100% purely random. How could we ever know such a thing? We couldn't: we can only admit that we do not know, that we do not need further 'structure' in the indeterminacy than we posit exists in order to support current scientific models. But this leaves a question: how do we think about that which is currently a mystery? What 'structure' do we put there? It seems that we can put a 'personal' structure there, giving first-class status to beings with wills, or we can put an 'impersonal' structure there, in which case compatibilism obtains.

    Importantly, as illustrated in Pigliucci's first "Essay on emergence", there are many substructures or "microstructures" which one can use to undergird the next level, the level which starts to be falsifiable by current science and thought. Which one ought one pick? The only answer is: the one which maximally helps us better understand reality. One cannot answer on empirical grounds! And yet, the choice, I claim, matters.

    This is, of course, a philosophical issue: how do we handle that which is still mysterious to us? Do we insist that we have pretty close to an understanding of the thing, or do we very much admit that all we have is a picture of the thing? I'm reminded of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, in which he thinks he has conquered the per-Kant unknowable "thing-in-itself" through positing the will, which can explore reality and investigate Kant's "thing-in-itself" ever more deeply and widely. I'm also reminded of Harry Frankfurt's On Truth, which argues that we know objective truth exists because sometimes we don't get what we want—what we will.

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  12. My position on Libertarian free will and Naturalism is this:

    In order for Libertarian free will to be possible under Naturalism, these need to be true:

    1. A conscious intention is a proximate cause factor
    2. A conscious intention is a macro-process which is not sensitively dependent on micro-processes.
    3. A conscious intention is not sensitively dependent on prior conditions
    4. A conscious intention is neither strictly deterministic nor random.

    I would claim that you could show this more rigorously be defining a set of statements which a person would assent to as an expression of their experience of free will and testing for contradictions.

    I cannot see any immediate reason to suppose there is a contradiction.

    If Naturalism is true then I am a mathematical process.* Currently we do not know what this mathematical process is, but it seems reasonable to suppose it is a subtle and elegant process that is able to perceive what it is like to be that process.

    In addition we do not even have a handle on how we would even begin to deal with the issue of consciousness. We do not even have a conceptual understanding of how it is that a conscious state can be a system of cells exchanging signals.

    Yet, even given this rather poor state of our knowledge, people feel confident in saying that our everyday experience of volition must be radically mistaken.

    Oddly enough the people who make this confident assertion based on a lack of knowledge and vague arguments cannot decide among themselves what it is we ought to be believing instead.

    So it seems to me that I should probably just go on crediting my everyday experience until the great and the good decide among themselves what I ought to think about the matter, or at least until they manage to put together a coherent sentence between them.

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  13. In order to know (in the everyday sense, not the logician's valid argument & indubitable premises sense) that something is wrong, one doesn't have to have a clear explanation of (or plausible theory of) what's correct. Often in math & science courses, I knew that my best attempted answer was wrong, but I hadn't a clue about a right answer. Similarly, those who know (everyday sense) that determinism is false needn't provide a viable alternative theory - tho' it would be nice if they could. However, all attempts at libertarian explanations have serious flaws. I'm with those who say determinism is wrong, because if it's right then we have no basis for trusting any of our reasoning. What then is the alternative to determinism? I have no idea. Karl Popper put it pretty well:

    For according to determinism, any theories - such as, say, determinism - are held because of a certain physical structure of the holder (perhaps of his brain). Accordingly we are deceiving ourselves (and are physically so determined as to deceive ourselves) whenever we believe that there are such things as arguments or reasons which make us accept determinism. Or in other words, physical determinism is a theory which, if it is true, is not arguable, since it must explain all our reactions, including what appear to us as beliefs based on arguments, as due to purely physical conditions. [Objective Knowledge 1972. 223-24]

    The typical response to this Popperian claim is: but (1) there is no incompatibility between thoughts being (pre) determined and being true. Yes. And there also (2) no incompatibility between thoughts being (pre)determined and being false yet being thought to be true! If determinism is true, how can thinkers distinguish between (1) and (2)? There's no way.

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  14. Steve wrote: "Let’s say Austin’s golfer decides to position his thumb a certain way on his club just as he’s about to make his putt. However, right before he swings the club, he has the thought to move his thumb into a different position; but what is the cause of that thought? The thought to change his thumb position simply occurred to him. Where is the freedom in that? "

    It is always a little misleading to discuss free will in the context of an action where the successful completion of the intended event depends so much on factors that have nothing to do with volition.

    The non-volitional factors are simply irrelevant unless by "free will" you actually mean "omnipotence".

    The chance he has of sinking his putt will depend upon wanting to do it, and his skill and knowledge. These factors will contribute to the successful completion in the same way given a wide variety of past states and events beyond his control.

    His skill, knowledge and desire to golf are not sensitively dependent upon micro-states or environmental factors or prior conditions.

    Why would that contradict the golfers own beliefs about the situation? He does not fancy himself to be infallible. He knows that his golfing skills depend upon a host of prior cause factors, the motor skills he gained through nature and upbringing and that they depend upon good instructors and plenty of practice and the luck of having the opportunity of doing so.

    The golfer (unless mentally ill) does not consider himself to be the ultimate author of the successful putt, merely the proximate author.

    So how does the real situation contradict his belief?

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  15. And that is the point that most people seem to miss. The question is not whether we have some sort of theoretical supernatural agency.

    The question is whether or not the beliefs that most of us have about our volition are compatible with the laws of physics.

    I think that the burden of evidence is on those people who make the claim that those beliefs are wrong in some way.

    They need to properly state what they claim the beliefs are, then show empirical evidence that their account of these beliefs actually accords with what people believe and then finally to formally show the contradiction that they claim.

    I am not aware of anybody ever having done this.

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  16. Let me underline what I think are the great myths of the free-will debate:

    1. The Big Bang chose what I had for breakfast this morning. This is the hard deterministic approach. Like Max Tegmark in his Mathematical Universe paper I doubt that such an impressive compression ratio is possible and I don't think this is mandated by physics.
    2. Atoms chose what I had for breakfast this morning This says that my choices are sensitively dependent upon all my micro-states, however we know that macro-processes don't have to be sensitively dependent upon micro-states and if this was true of our brain then our brain would be more like a hurricane and would not be able to reason at all.

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    1. @1 : You still haven't explained why there is any need for "encoding" or "compression" here. Determinism is a causal system - and most determinists like me mean strict physical causation - and is not one of a consciousness willing or planning or encoding it. In fact, I'm a bit confused to why you think this?

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    2. @2 : "micro" and "macro" are human abstract concepts, and has no bearing on reality. There are no "levels" in which we can look at the interactions between them. An atom in a pond in Norway (some would call this "micro") can absolutely be the key log to cataclysmic events in Brazil (some might call this "macro"), it's just that we have no way of knowing this, and hence treat it as "absurd". Why people place "micro" and "macro" at given intervals or thresholds is purely a human convention, often of scale of understanding, which in turn should not fool people into thinking these intervals or thresholds are real in any shape or form. They're just convenient markers for us humans. All of our measurements and scales and categories and groupings and boundaries are made up; they're human inventions of convenience, nothing more.

      Again, we're brushing up against what we don't know, and make all sorts of bold assertions based on it that are, well, let's face it, guesses, wishes and hope.

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    3. Alexander - I think that you will find that all of our physics is done using abstract concepts.

      The rest of what you say has no relevance to my point because it only relies on the processes being "micro" and "macro" with respect to each other.

      It is the compatibilists and incompatibilists (and you) who make bold assertions, not I.

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    4. For the "determinism" thing, you are basically saying that it is possible for there to be a process which, no matter how many times you ran it, would always consistently produce the same information and yet that information is not encoded in the initial conditions of the process.

      Essentially you are talking about magic.

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    5. @robin : You swat my argument aside like a fly, eh? :) Of course physics and every bit of human knowledge is an abstraction, like the language we use to talk about these things. That was, um, my point? My point was that there is no micro or macro, so you can't rely on it. You have an inherit human bias in your premise for the universe which you need to deal with.

      "It is the compatibilists and incompatibilists (and you) who make bold assertions, not I."

      You're ... outside of reality in some way?

      "Essentially you are talking about magic."

      What, now? How about you try this; create a computer program that does 355 / 113. I'm pretty sure it's not magic. Or look up a Wolfram machine. This is just some simple mathematics to demonstrate just how little you need in order to create something near infinite and complex, and every time you ran your program, the result would be exactly the same. As if by logic, not magic. The universe is no different; in a fully determined system, there is no random, so you need very little to create rather much.

      And you're still talking about "encoding" stuff, refuted (or at least heavily questioned) several comments ago. Why?

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    6. Hmm.. thats a new and unfamliar usage of the word "refute".

      I think you will find that the output of a stand alone deterministic algorithm is indeed encoded in its initial stare. The same with a Wolfram rule. This fact is the basis of one of the mathematical definitions of complexity.

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    7. Notice that Wolfrms rule 110 is the only one of his linear cellular automata that could account for the kind of complexity that we observe and that the output of rule110 can never be any more complex than its initial string.

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    8. @robin : You seem to be very hung up on this notion of encoding. Let it go for a second, ok? Wolframs rules are mere demonstrations of complexity as emergent properties of simple rules. Apart from being cute and interesting they have no real place in this argument. The point is to try to imagine a causal system in a more logical manner using mathematics, and not saying that it *is* mathematics. Divide 8 by 7, and see what you get. You get a pattern that looks ... why, almost spooky, right? Almost like as if there's some encoding going on. But there isn't. It's just numbers in relations to each-other that we often mistake for significant. We humans are like that; we see patterns everywhere and try to make sense of them, and if no sense can be given to them implicitly, we often jump ahead and give it to them explicitly anyway. We don't seem to like not knowing. And so we'd rather know, even if it's wrong.

      Anyway, enough about this. There's no encoding going on, unless you've got specific religious reasons for why that needs to be the case.

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  17. Here is what I claim instead:

    A self-aware macro state which is neither strictly deterministic nor random and which is not sensitively dependent upon micro-states or prior conditions chose what I had for breakfast this morning.

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  18. I think I'm a pretty hard determinist, that all of future is determined and solid and that there is only one future which can happen in no other way, and if you had the ability to understand the state of the universe at time T1 you could follow it to predict accurately what the state of the universe would be at time T2, and begging quantum entanglement and other mechanics for some random help is pointless because you cannot prove that their apparent random nature is, indeed, random.

    However, the causal complexity is beyond what any mind or technology can even begin to figure out, there's no way to even capture and understand the smallest of contexts at almost any given time, so it looks completely and utterly random, and we can safely treat it as such, too. The future is wide open in the sense that we don't know - and can't know! - much about it, even though it is closed in that it can happen in only one specific way.

    So, in summary, everything is determined for sure, but you will never know. The fact that we can't know is what gives the present the feel of freedom.

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    1. So in other words you are saying that your choice of breakfast was encoded in the Big Bang along with the Quran, Beethoven's 9th and the script for Dumb and Dumber?

      What do you think makes that kind of compression ratio possible?

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    2. Yes, to the first question. Huh?, to the latter.

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    3. Oh, hang on, I see what you're doing there; I missed the word "encoded" when I read it the first time.

      So, no, there's no encoding, the future is completely unknown, however it's also causal so something will happen in a way that, had you the power to check the state of everything, you could predict what everything would follow.

      So, another way to say it is that my choice of breakfast was determined by the Big Bang along with the Quran, Beethoven's 9th and the script for Dumb and Dumber, however there was no way to know that. There is only one possible future, however we don't know anything about what that will look like.

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    4. I am not sure what you don't understand about the latter question. Presumably you are aware of the concept of data compression?

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    5. So "encoded in the Big Bang" is just what your words imply

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    6. What? No, there's no encoding at all. There's a chain of causation; "encoded" has all sorts of baggage that simply isn't there. The word "determined" covers it quite well and, well, is the term used. :)

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    7. If what you say is true then the works of Shakespeare could be, in principle, derived by a mathematical operation on the data available during the first few seconds of the Universe - yes?

      So how is that not encoding the works of Shakespeare.

      And, no, a "word" does not convey an argument, especially one so loosely and ambiguously used as "determined".

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    8. "If what you say is true then the works of Shakespeare could be, in principle, derived by a mathematical operation on the data available during the first few seconds of the Universe - yes?"

      No, of course not; that would be absurd. Only people who believe in some crazy notion of "encoding" would say that.

      As to "determined", the word does not imply that *someone* is doing the determining. This is purely a causal system which is determined by a process of quantum mechanics.

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  19. @Steve Neumann


    I have not read their (Mumford and Anjum) book. But I do not see much value on their “principle of Alternate Possibilities” --- “for any free agent x, and action A performed by x in circumstances C at time t, then there was another action A’, where A does not equal A’, such that x could have performed A’ at t and not A.” But, I think that your three points might not be enough to discredit it.


    First, “Fixed Past => Present Possibilities/Choices => Future
    Now, surely most of us can agree that the past is fixed — we can’t change it; what happened, happened.”

    I do not agree with this statement. The past ‘event’ has happened, happened. But, the ‘past’ is not fixed. The ‘past’ is always a part of now and of future. The wrong of ‘past’ can still harm us now and future. The wrong of ‘past’ can always be righted now or in the future. The same for the greatness of the ‘past’ which is … now, … future.


    Second, “And if the interferers that contribute to these alternate possibilities originate outside the agent (a malicious squirrel), thwarting the agent’s expressed desire (of sinking a putt), then the agent has no ultimate control.”

    I do not believe that the ‘free will’ must be tied up with the ‘outcome’. That my free actions fail every time on their desired ‘outcomes’ does hurt my feelings but will do no harm on my free will.


    Third, “He may have had a subsequent thought that approved of the thought to change his thumb position, but then one can ask where that thought came from, and so on ad infinitum.”

    If I change my will any which way, it is always my free will.


    My opinion is that the free will issue has only two points.
    a. Is there a limitation on my free will? That is, what kind of power does [human] free will have? What does free will ‘mean’?
    b. Is the Nature (or God) having free will?

    In my view, the following is the [human] free will equation
    [human] free will = pity + pity + … + weak + weak + .. + dismay + dismay + …
    Being such a ‘pity-weak-dismay’, we have been set ‘free’ to do whatever we freely want. My pity free will can do absolutely nothing on your free will. We can freely dream up many other universes but not allowed to visit them, let alone to create them. Thus, there is no limitation on my free will, as it can do no harm anyway (in terms of the universe).


    Only when one is totally ‘confined’, he will be set free. When the three nature constants [(e, c, ħ), the measuring rulers] are ‘locked’ by Alpha, ‘this’ universe was set free for ... But, the ‘lock’ itself cannot be free for ‘this’ universe.

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  20. I such discussions, I see the problem more in the word "free" than anything else.

    Let's take a deterministic world as a background, then one could argue that there is still enough "possibility of freedom" in it, so that a person / mind could take a free decision. For example: the movement of the subatomic particles might be fuzzy, but still sort-of-deterministic - but what exactly would tell us that about complex things like intentions, wishes and decisions? If you look at a bunch of electrons and their relatives in the particle zoo, it is quite unlikely that you would come up with the idea of DNS or a human being. What I mean: just because the base is deterministic does not necessarily mean, that everything that springs from it is not free. If things get interestingly complex, there might be freedom occurring.

    But I guess it is really different - because I take the non-deterministic world as the background and I am happy to admit that I am not the one who causes my thoughts in an intelligent manner, i.e. my thoughts are bubbling up in my mind, e.g. as sensual reactions or "memories" etc.. I would not say the mind is deterministic, but it is just working - I think the words "free" and "deterministic" attached to the thought process is misleading, it gives people the impression, as if there should/should not be something free/deterministic in thoughts.

    So yes, if you have to, call my view deterministic, but that is not the real thing about it. The real thing is what happens when a thought pops out and is processed in the mind - this is the "work" of the mind and still this cannot be steered.

    For example - sometimes, when a person "understands" something, it is the amount of information that was collected on this subject, that suddenly falls into the right place. This all sounds quite mystical (like steered from above), but I guess it is more like what happens when our legs start running - it is just the function of the thing.

    Freedom is nothing in the brain, it is something between the person and the world the person lives in. It is nothing internal to an entity that regards itself as a whole.

    Putting decision making and thinking into the context of determinism and freedom is (in my understanding) misleading - it takes the focus away from looking at the brain processes. Instead of "how" we again ask "why".

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    1. @Georg Mayer:

      “I see the problem more in the word "free" than anything else. ... What I mean: just because the base is deterministic does not necessarily mean, that everything that springs from it is not free. ... I think the words "free" and "deterministic" attached to the thought process is misleading, it gives people the impression, as if there should/should not be something free/deterministic in thoughts.”


      Good analysis. But, there is too big a baggage for free/deterministic, and as soon as we bogged down with it, there is no chance to get any sense out from it. The key issue is, indeed, about the meaning of the word ‘free’. What is the essence of ‘free’? What is the essential in ‘free’?


      In addition to be a term of philosophy and or politics, ‘free’ is a term of physics, ‘precisely’ defined in physics. A ‘free’ particle is a particle free from the interference from any ‘external’ force. A consequence of this definition is that the free particle should not give any impact to the external world neither. With this definition, a ‘true’ free particle can only be found in a ‘potential-well’ of infinite depth. In the entire physical universe, only ‘quark’ at its asymptotic freedom stage is reaching the status of being a true free particle. Yet, this freedom comes with a big price, the ‘total confinement’.


      Again, there is ‘degrees of freedom’, precisely defined both in physics and in math. In a one-degree of freedom world, the police ‘power’ is very powerful as there is no place to run for a thief. When the degrees of freedom increase and the thief can weasel out to the other dimensions, the police ‘power’ becomes weak. Then, is the power of thief increasing? No, the places that the treasure which can be hidden by the rich have increased, and the ‘power of stealing’ by any thief is also significantly weakened. Is then the power of escape increasing? In physics, the power of escape (not projecting any force to the external world) is the definition for ‘free’. Of course, the higher degrees of freedom has higher ‘free’, by definition.


      With the two points above, in physics, ‘free’ denotes the ‘total confinement’ and connotes ‘weakening all external powers’. And stronger a ‘power’ has, lesser free it will be.


      ‘Time’ cannot be free from:
      a. Not goes into past,
      b. Not becomes present (now),
      c. Not enters into the future.


      Being not free, ‘time’ is absolute and absolutely ‘powerful’. Time has no free-will which can change itself. In fact, at the law level (not the physical manifested level), there is no way (thus far) to distinguish the (past, now, and future). Indeed, the ‘powerful’ cannot be free. The three nature constants (measuring rulers, Kings, or the three Gods [e, c, ħ]) has no free-will power to change themselves, at least, in ‘this’ universe which they govern.

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  21. Since Einstein we know that time is the fourth dimension. We are speaking about space - time. This means that from the point of view of a fourth dimensional 'now' past and also the future are there already.
    So Alexander is totally right.

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    1. No, because what time do you imagine the "already" in the expression "already there" refers to?

      Your words imply that time exists in time. Hard determinism implies an impossible compression of information.

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    2. On the other hand, if that "already" is from the point of view of another time stream or an atemporal perspective then it still does not imply determinism because our volitions relate to this time stream. So if space-time is a unified objects then the patterns within that object are still a function of our choices. The schoolmen were already thinking of time as a dimension in the middle ages so these issues were discussed centuries before Einstein.

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  22. The results in the past couple of years towards making generators of "certified" random numbers (e.g. Quantis by IDQ) makes determinism less likely.

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    1. I think determinism has an internal contradiction, like the cosmological argument for the existence of god. Who/what determined the first determinor?

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    2. It's a problem for me too. It seems there is some difference between notions of determinism and causality, but they are frequently used interchangeably. And I'm not sure this is correct.

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    3. That's a good thought, Thomas, and part of why I analogize to the cosmological argument.

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  23. If you are still trying to get hold of freedom or free will I suggest you simply let go! =

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  24. Another point is that, if we have no free will then all of our behaviour, including our language, is determined by something which is not conscious.

    This would mean that none of our statements which seem to be about conscious states are actually about conscious states because those statements would have been caused by something which does not have conscious states and those states are simply the end result.

    This would mean that most of our language does not mean what we seem to think it means. In particular any argument that says that we don’t have the free will we feel we have, cannot succeed because, if true, it would have been formulated by something which does not know how anything feels and cannot refer to its ostensible subject matter.

    In general this is absurd because it ends up saying that we know more than our brains do, which would entail some sort of dualism.

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    1. "This would mean that most of our language does not mean what we seem to think it means."

      I think that's been undisputed since at *least* Wittgenstein. :)

      "it would have been formulated by something which does not know how anything feels"

      ... and *here* is where I think you make some grand leap that no one is able to follow. Could you flesh this out a little bit? I have no idea why think emergent properties of a determined system is impossible? You seem to be lending a lot of thought back to some first mover or first cause, but I'm curious to know why?

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    2. Undisputed wince Wittgenstein? I think you will need to support that assertion. Even Wittgenstein disputes a large part of what he said.

      But f you claim that you have no idea what you are talking about then what use do you think your words are to me?

      What do you mean by an emergent property? That world gets used a number of different ways. And what does it have to do with what I said?

      If what you say is true then all of our language was set at the time of the Big Bang. Was there any consciousness in the first few seconds of our Universe?

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    3. Yes, the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, or the Proto-Tractatus, is far removed from that of the Blue Book. Otherwise, I think Robin raises other good logical-type questions about determinism, which again lead me to think that, at least in its "hardest" versions, it's "not even wrong."

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    4. Guys, I don't know why this creates this kind of response, but I'm clearly referring to Wittgenstein the later; his argument on language games and the lack of structural truth later in life is paramount to the history of philosophy - not to mention his refutation of himself! - and it makes sense here to laugh at the fact that language probably ain't what we think it is. I thought I was safe referring to that. My bad.

      "But f you claim that you have no idea what you are talking about then [...]"

      Whoa, whoa! Pull back! Where did this come from?

      "What do you mean by an emergent property?"

      I didn't know this one was contentious, either? It just means some new property that emerges from something old through some process. Put tea leaves together with hot water, and delicious tea emerges. Or, more seriously, at what point in human embryology of the brain does consciousness appear? (There's a religious cop-out answer here, of course, but I'm not going there quite yet)

      "And what does it have to do with what I said?"

      Because a little further up, you said: "if we have no free will then all of our behaviour, including our language, is determined by something which is not conscious", and then you had a paragraph about how consciousness can't be caused by something that isn't conscious. And I think I understand your argument, similar to a first mover, first cause, etc. However, consciousness I see simply as an emergent property of an increasingly complex system. There's nothing particularly controversial about this.

      "If what you say is true then all of our language was set at the time of the Big Bang."

      Again, you seem a bit stuck on this encoding thing, about things being set. Nope, nothing was set, nothing was encoded, there was no guidance, no programming, no codes, no languages, no nothing except a whole lotta heat and expansion and the shaping of what we now refer to as natural laws, a cooling that made matter emerge from the plasma soup, and then first generation of stars which exploded into a second generation that included most of the matter we know, and so on. It's a long chain of emergent properties, where something that wasn't there before comes out of some conditions when you alter their state.

      And still there could only be this universe we live in, and if you ran it again, it would turn out the exact same universe ... unless quantum indeterminism is true, of which we can't possibly know. I personally don't think it is, that's all, so no randomness to save us. However, there's no way to know anything much at all about the state of a universe, so there's no point in trying to shoehorn in any scenario of being able to look into the future and see what it will be like, not even between T1 and T2 of any state of the universe, mostly because time is an abstract concept that isn't real, of course, but also because the complexity of it all is just *so* beyond comprehension, both in terms of capturing it, but also in ways of analysing it. It's one of those thing where you need many times over the capacity of a universe to observe that universe, which is oxymoronic and impossible.

      As to the question of a consciousness at the first few seconds of our universe, only religious folks would answer that with a yes. So no. Probably not.

      But hey, isn't it time you addressed some of the questions I had?

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