Do We Have Free Will?


I remember as a child reading something about “the will” and thinking how odd it was that philosophers talked about it like they might talk about an object. The will? Don’t we just do stuff? I haven’t thought a lot about “the question of free will” (whether we have it) since.

I had realised that I can’t cheat inevitability. I can’t choose an option that isn’t the one I’m going to choose: that’s just changing my mind to whatever I’m going to choose. But I accepted subconsciously, as most of us do, the idea that I’m a free agent. Even when I accepted materialism and started to think of humans as biological machines, it took a while to revisit the question of free will. Machines don’t generally have it, after all.

Last winter, I happened upon a website that made it pretty clear (after engaging in a couple of discussions about free will elsewhere online in which I was sceptically agnostic about it). I was surprised to find myself persuaded fairly quickly that we probably don’t have free will – and from an almost purely philosophical argument, which I often doubt in relation to ontological matters.

I hesitated to write about it to give myself time to mull it over and do more research. It’s time to share my thoughts now. As usual, one of my motivations is to stimulate discussion, so please chip in if you like, pro or con.

If we don’t have free will, it would have some very challenging, but positive, implications for our moral and political questions (despite most people being horrified by the idea).

And that last point is vitally important. If you read this and begin to be persuaded that free will might be an illusion, do not jump to conclusions about what that means, especially negative ones: these are very likely to be mistaken. Give it time and read about why having no free will (and understanding that properly) would be good for humanity.

‘Trick Slattery

The website that had such an impact on me is the work of ‘Trick Slattery, author of Breaking The Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. It provides a great introduction to the subject, being easily navigable and explaining all the relevant issues in bite-size chunks (and infographics).

What is Free Will?

At first, it seems obvious we have free will. If I am in line at an ice-cream counter and see that they serve my two favourite flavours, there is a common-sense kind of free will we can argue for: I am free to choose chocolate or vanilla. End of story.

This points to a view of free will that is contrasted with cases where there is an obvious obstruction to one of the choices: someone has a gun to my head and demands I get vanilla, or they’ve run out of chocolate.

dessert ice cream summer sweet

But there are deeper questions to be asked. After all, if we say we know the answer to questions because they’re “common sense”, we might still think the Sun went round the Earth dispensing indivisible white light. The free will that Slattery says most people understand by the term, and the kind that matters to us personally and politically, is something different. A shortened version of his definition is:

the ability to choose between more than one viable option or action

Good philosophy involves a similar kind of scepticism required in science. You already have a hypothesis (in philosophy, an argument), but instead of resting on your laurels, you try to disprove it. Another thing that happens in both disciplines is that you notice two explanations that seem to be incompatible with each other, causing you to wonder which needs correcting.

Determinism

In this case, it is the principle of determinism that throws a spanner in the free-will works. This is the proposition that every thing or condition in the universe is caused by prior things or conditions in a fixed way, i.e. is determined by them. This principle, that of cause and effect, is very powerfully supported and observed almost everywhere we look. Science would be extremely problematic, if not impossible, without it.

There has been a very long debate in philosophy about how to understand free will when nature seems to proceed in an orderly manner, like clockwork, each event necessarily a consequence of what existed before. Later discoveries, such as chaos or quantum mechanics, do not seem to change this. Chaos, the discovery that very small changes in initial conditions can cause enormous changes in results in a system, is deterministic. We’ll come to QM shortly.

So, what if we just think we have free will, when in fact all the relevant conditions of the physical world, including within us, cause every event, all actions, choices and thoughts, including the illusion of free will?

A lot of people have a negative reaction to this thought, because we naturally like to be in control. Wouldn’t the lack of free will mean that we were like automata, cogs in a great machine, just going through the motions?

Indeterminism

Of course, determinism can be doubted. Indeterminism is the natural alternative, and is essentially just randomness. Randomness is thought by many to operate at quantum levels, and is often cited as a source of free-will.

So, does randomness help justify belief in free will? Surely not. If an effect is caused by a random process, it’s still beyond our control. We wouldn’t be exercising our free will if we made our decisions by tossing a coin.

In actual fact, most things we call random, like tossing a coin, are deterministic; it only seems random to us because we can’t know all the details of the starting conditions and kinetics involved. If we did, we’d know how a coin would fall. I’m allowing for the possibility of true randomness, which some say exists at the quantum level, but it doesn’t seem to help.

If an effect is determined, we’re not free; if randomly caused, we’re impotent to choose its outcome. And, as far as I can see, no mixture or complex interplay of determined processes and random ones grants free will either. Following a determined course of action with some influence from a random-choice generator won’t make us free agents.

For the sake of simplicity, therefore, in the rest of the text I will use “determinism” and “deterministic” to include the possibility of randomness, i.e. as a synonym for “not within our control”.

A Third Way

Compatibilism?

There is a position called compatibilism. Compatibilists accept determinism, yet believe we have free will. This usually involves defining free will differently, such as the absence of identifiable, obvious coercion (the gun-to-the-head variety). It is easy to see there could be a pragmatic justification for this type of “free will”, such as in courts of law, where a gun to your head makes a significant difference to your choice, but pragmatism does not rule out that there may be a deeper truth. If all of our motivations are unavoidable, as determinism implies, then this intuitive view of free will is simply wrong. We may not be able to identify all the causes of an act, but they are there anyway.

Magic?

This brings up a longstanding argument for free will, which invokes some kind of dualism, often religious. This is not compatibilism, necessarily, because it may deny determinism. It is the soul, psyche or mind that is seen as the seat of our agency. Free will becomes one of the gaps God fills: God gave us it. Conversely, free will (being intuitively assumed) becomes an argument for God. Christian theology requires free will for humans to be able to choose good actions or sinful ones, and to repent, on which the destiny of their immortal soul depends.

There is no evidence whatever for the existence of separate, non-physical mind-stuff (despite endless attempts to find it and no lack of assertion). There is also a mountain of evidence that mental effects are identical to (or “caused by”) the brain states that accompany them. Hence, scientists like the clinical neurologist, Steven Novella tend to agree (it’s difficult to find data on how many would):

There is no mind without the brain (despite the unsubstantiated claims of paranormalists). If the brain is not biologically active, there is no consciousness. If the brain is damaged, the mind is altered. As brain function changes through drugs, lack of sleep, fever, or some metabolic derangement – so changes the mind. No reliable observation or experiment has been able to separate the mind as a phenomenon from the brain.

https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-denialism-dodge/

There is also the problem that if the mind were non-physical, yet we act in the physical world and gain mental impressions from it, we have to explain how there could be interaction between matter and non-matter. This is a feat that has eluded philosophers since Descartes, although this didn’t stop him conjecturing for no good reason that it happened in the pineal gland.

The attempts continue up to our own time with David Chalmers, who described the difference between brain function and subjective experience as the “hard problem of consciousness”, and the mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose, who, along with Stuart Hameroff, seems to be seeking consciousness in the microtubules of the brain, believing that it’s quantum mechanical. While some of these modern attempts involve “property dualism” or a postulated missing law of physics rather than “substance dualism”, they seem, to me, to be responses to incredulity that the subjective effect we call consciousness could be physical.

If one is happy to embrace dualism despite no evidence for it and lots of evidence against, one can quit here: the problem is solved (by magic). Materialists, however, must continue.

The important thing to note about consciousness for the free-will debate is that it must be active, indeed pro-active, in the process of making decisions and choices. Few would argue that decisions we made in our sleep demonstrated free will. Similarly, if we are awake, but making choices without knowing it, we should not consider that free will.

The semantics in this debate are critical, and we have to be extra careful what we mean. Words like “choice” or “decision” are often used in two distinct ways: to imply a consciously willed process, or to describe an unwilled, mechanistic process, as when we say that a computer program makes a decision. We humans observably make choices and decisions; the question is whether these are like those of a computer or those of a truly free agent. Steven Novella, again:

Many times we feel as if we are making a conscious choice, but we can see in the brain that the choice was actually made subconsciously before we are even aware of it.

Even when the choice is made consciously, meaning we are aware of the factors that are affecting the decision, that does not mean we have truly free will. The brain is still a machine, and is dependent upon the laws of physics. A stone does not have free will to choose its path as it rolls down a hill. Its path is entirely determined by physics. Some argue that brain processes are no different, just orders of magnitude more complex.

At the same time, we do make decisions (whatever their underlying reality). Part of the “laws of physics” that shape those decisions is the knowledge that the decisions we make have consequences. Some of those consequences may be moral, shaped by culture and society.

And so whatever your belief about the ultimate philosophical reality of free will, we act as if we have free will, because we do make choices.

https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/free-will-and-morality/

I don’t think Novella is making a compatibilist argument here, he’s using the second of the two meanings of “we make choices”, as observable behaviour. He indicates just how semantically sensitive the issue gets: our choices (in the mechanistic sense) are partly informed by predicting outcomes and holding certain values, but this process may still be entirely unchosen (in the free-will sense), because we do not choose our values, nor the evolved computations by which we predict outcomes of different choices, nor any of the other variables that constitute “us” and the world we live in.

If an event in the universe follows prior events in causal chains, the variables that make up our values are part of that process. However much we deliberate on a decision, our brains are just going through the motions, eventually making the only choice they can make.

The philosophical implications of this are quite mind-bending, and the political implications are quite revolutionary. But what evidence is there?

Complicated Science

Studies on the process of making decisions and initiating action, beginning with Benjamin Libet, do suggest that we make our decisions unconsciously and then retrospectively reconstruct the sense of having made them, but there are inherent difficulties designing experiments and interpreting the results, which, I believe, rest on the simple fact that consciousness is a subjective matter.

Libet’s first experiments, for instance, required subjects to wait for the urge to arise in them to take a particular action, like flex the wrist, and simultaneously note the time on a specially designed clock when they felt the urge to move. This is clearly riddled with all manner of possible confusions, but on face value the results showed that the brain was readying itself something like a third of a second before the subject believed they’d made the decision to move.

Later experiments have given even more stark results. It has been found that experimenters, analysing fMRI data, could predict well above chance which of two buttons the subject would press several seconds before the subject chose one.

This article by Adam Bear describes more of the evidence for these “postdictive” effects (where we trick ourselves into thinking we caused an event), if you want more detail. I won’t say much more here; the take-home is that we often believe – and are utterly convinced – that we (consciously) made particular decisions or instigated actions when our brains and bodies have already executed them.

The evidence for this is incontrovertible, but there is perhaps a danger of over-generalisation. These are simple decisions and actions in artificial situations. One could still postulate some kind of long-term, complex influence from a subset of brain functions that are somehow free to make decisions in ordinary life. However, I honestly can’t imagine how that would work.

Simpler Philosophy?

As an empiricist, I’d love to have clear evidence on that wider proposition one way or the other, but we don’t have it, and I believe it is probably impossible to get it. On the other hand, the fairly simple philosophical argument appears to be sound and a good representation of reality. Determinism and indeterminism fail to give us free will, and any third option seems impossible. If the mind is not a separate thing, we are collections of atoms, and collections of atoms don’t have a will of their own, they respond to current circumstances according to the laws of physics. But is it that simple?

Emergence and Downward Causation

One of the most promising arguments for free will might be that it is an emergent property of the evolved brain. Emergent properties are everywhere: ant colonies or crowds of people, weather patterns or chemical compounds. Significantly, consciousness is often described as an emergent property of the brain. Could free will be an emergent property, especially as consciousness is important for it?

It is not the existence of emergent properties that is in doubt so much as the question of whether they are actual causes, independent of their parts.

This is related to something called “downward causation”. Downward causation refers to the process whereby the whole affects the parts (“upward causation” being a little more obvious, since it is how all the large systems around us are built). So, if a whole, a surgeon, say, operates on his own leg, this is downward causation. The surgeon is the result, amongst other things, of upward causation: his growth and all his evolutionary past.

I disagree with Slattery on this issue. He argues for downward causation, but discounts its facility in giving free will, while I think of it as an abstraction. However, I can see it from both positions, and, once again, it depends on very fine distinctions.

Assuming I have understood his position, he sees wholes (and mental phenomena, by the way) as having real causal efficacy, but, since they result from a chain of cause and effect, free will is still impossible.

The other way to see it, which I’m more drawn to, is that the whole, being the sum of the parts, has no special emergent causal property, although we can abstract that idea and attach a label, “Dan, the intrepid surgeon”. Does it matter really whether we say a man is a cloud of choreographed atoms that does complex stuff, or that his atoms create a higher-level thing that has causal properties that affect lower levels of matter? Upward and downward causation cancel out, by either reckoning.

Slattery sees consciousness as ontologically real, separate from the brain states that cause it, and from that, believes that it can be a cause of effects (such as pain making us avoid a hot stove). I see conscious experience not as caused by the physics of the brain, but identical to it.

We have little problem, seeing a swirling cyclone, in understanding that it is essentially an abstraction, just water and air molecules in motion. We can just about as easily see an ant colony’s behaviour as just the behaviour of individual ants, summed. It’s much harder, but in principle no different, to see a human being as a complex buzz of energy and atoms. I’ll return to this question another time, leaving you with Slattery’s conclusion:

Upward, downward, sideways, multidirectional, or even special swirly whirly causation is “deterministic” and incompatible with free will.

Implications

The definition of free will with which we began – “the ability to choose between more than one viable option or action” – implies another that Slattery uses (again, I’ll shorten it):

the ability to have done otherwise than one actually did

Clearly these are equivalent: if we only ever have one viable option ahead of us, when we look back, we only had one viable option.

Most people don’t want to consider this possibility. Where it is discussed, I see people bemoaning their reluctant conversion, or urging people not to spread it about or it’ll be the end of civilization as we know it. But the surprising thing is that a number of very valuable benefits follow from the no-free-will position, which is why Slattery’s book title ends as it does: …for the Betterment of Humankind.

A common reaction is along the lines of, “Well, if there were no free will, there’d be no point getting up in the morning. If we’re just robots, people are going to do what they’re going to do, so we might as well give up trying to do anything different, or trying to influence anyone. Politics would be dead.”

I believe the many confusions that arise just illustrate how alien the idea is to most of us. The lack of free will does not negate cause and effect (indeed we began with precisely that premise). Actions still have consequences, and those consequences are causes of further effects. These are not contradictory statements:

  • I cannot freely will what I am going to do.
  • What I do will affect things that follow.

Telling someone to do or not do something is an action, so it has consequences. But what you tell people will be a consequence of what you already believe. Hence, “people are going to do what they’re going to do” is true, but doesn’t mean they can’t be influenced – indeed, it means that they will do what they’re going to do precisely because they are influenced…by what you do, what everyone else is doing, and all other relevant variables.

The response that we might as well not get up in the morning isn’t realistic, because people are creatures of habit and if we try to lie in bed, we soon want to get up and have breakfast. We have desires, drives and ambitions; these are the things that have been making us act the way we do already, so if we’re only discovering that we have no free will, we’ll still have them.

On the other hand, our motivations might well change with this, as with any, important discovery. For instance, Theresa, hearing that she has no free will, may decide to stay in bed sulking, before eventually having to get up for a pee. Boris might spend the morning meditating to see if he can find his will-power. Jeremy might write a manifesto for a better tomorrow, based on the compassion that comes from realising that nobody had a choice in who they are or what they do.

These actions would be different from what each would do had they not heard the news, but they could not help hearing it if they heard it, because that was caused by prior events, nor could they affect their response to it, because that would be caused by who they are.

Just Deserts

One of the most important consequences of accepting that we don’t have free will is realising that people do not deserve things in the way we usually imagine they do. They don’t deserve success or riches because they’re a hard worker (they’re a hard worker for reasons outside their control), and they don’t deserve to be poor. Criminals don’t deserve punishment; benefactors don’t deserve praise.

Again, it’s easy to misconstrue this and it depends on definitions. There may be pragmatic reasons to congratulate or criticise, to reward or incarcerate, to motivate particular behaviour: the word “deserve” here is used to indicate the attribution of fundamental praise-worthiness or blame-worthiness, i.e. dependent on agency. The no-free-will position is that nobody had an alternative to the actions they took. Had you been them (whoever you consider), you would have done exactly what they did.

The classic thought experiment involves the question: if I chose chocolate, but had a time-machine and could go back and be in the queue for ice cream again, with everything exactly the same in the universe as it was, could I choose vanilla this time, through an act of will? The question forces us to take seriously the determinist view, in which “everything being the same” includes everything that motivated us. In that case, it becomes impossible to conceive a difference that allows us to choose a different flavour (except a random difference, which is not willed).

The question of how much randomness there is in the universe is a difficult one to approach. If it is small or non-existent, the future is largely or entirely determined, but if it’s large, there could be all manner of hypothetical possible futures, although presumably only one will actualize.

My experience as a counsellor, anecdotal though it is, is consistent with the view that we can’t help but do what we do. When you listen to someone who has done terrible things, for example, you learn that their motivations were real and unavoidable. It is also healing to be understood in this way, to feel that someone “forgives” you (or rather, that there is no need for forgiveness).

The issue of addiction illustrates this. People struggle with themselves, wanting more than anything to give up their addiction, yet are unable to do so until – for whatever reason – they are able to do so. Self-recrimination tends to keep addicts in their addictions, because it’s a horrible feeling, and their addiction is how they temporarily feel better. Self-forgiveness, on the contrary, from seeing the forces that cause the behaviour, is a big part of the road to recovery.

There are many more implications of the no-free-will position, which Slattery goes into in detail, including creating a better justice system, based on purely consequentialist ethics rather than retribution, and working towards economic and social fairness. I’ll leave these for now in favour of a more personal reflection.

Paradoxical Freedom?

This has been a profound experience for me, even though I’m not 100% sure of the conclusion. It was at first rather disturbing to consider the proposition, but it’s now an increasing source of wonder. I am acutely aware that it is a dangerous idea (as has been said of Darwin’s evolution through natural selection). Like the latter, it is probably dangerous only when misunderstood, and profoundly beneficial when understood properly.

One paradoxical result for me, which I’ve seen others report too, is a feeling of freedom that I didn’t have when I took free will for granted! I think the reason is something like this: when I thought I had free will, I tended to assess my actions to some extent on how praiseworthy or blameworthy they might make me, eliciting feelings of pride or shame. I’m feeling more able now to assess my actions on a consequentialist basis alone, on likely outcomes. I suppose it’s a bit of freedom from my ego, which tends to cloud issues.

I’m still puzzled. I still keep thinking that if there’s no free will, nothing I do makes a difference; the outcome is inevitable. And then I recognise again that only half of that is true: whatever decision I’m about to make is inevitable, but what I do will indeed make a difference, lots of differences, just as the decision I’m about to make was determined by all the differences made in the past. There aren’t many occasions like this, when we experience personal paradigm shift. It takes some adjusting.

I imagined for a while I’d live my life henceforth with detachment, just watching, like a passenger, but that’s not quite right either. Living the actions of my life is part of the inevitable causal process of the universe. A water molecule may be swept along by the river, but it also is the river. This makes me feel more connected. Rather than feeling robotic, I’m swimming with Nature.

And I realise that, despite being a materialist for the last ten years, I have some remnant of the homunculus in my psychology – my magical free will – pulling the strings of this body like one of those powered exoskeletons from Avatar.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Religion/Atheism, Science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Do We Have Free Will?

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I have a few observations that may cash with your own thoughts.

    Your comment about “swimming with nature” sounds a little too mystical for you these days, I have to say, but that aside, it also implies rather too much by way of connectedness. Freedom of the will, if it is genuine, requires a certain disconnectedness with nature, or the deterministic conception of nature, at least.

    A second point: we cannot change the future, by definition, since the future is simply defined as whatever it is that will happen, regardless of how it may be brought about. But that has no implications for the existence of genuine undetermined cause. Some events may be brought about by causes that are themselves undetermined.

    A third point: while to say that what we call ‘free will’ is a ‘feeling’ (many, Dennett, for example, would say ‘intuition’) may render it more easily dismissible, it is an utter mischaracterisation of it. Feelings and intuitions have nothing to do with it. One has, I would say, direct, unmediated, first-person knowledge of it (as one has of consciousness). That first-person knowledge can exist at all is an inconvenience to a materialist mind but so far as I can see that’s just all the worse for materialism.

    A fourth point: the philosopher Galen Strawson has a rather telling argument against free will:

    You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
    In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for
    the way you are — at least in certain crucial mental respects.
    But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
    So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.

    The sounds decisive but I question the third premise, which already presupposes determinism. Our human natures, I would say, are just the sort of natures that can, to some interesting degree, mould themselves, and thus, the kind of persons we become. Crucially, we can acquire the right virtues (or not). What we cannot do anything about is having those kinds of radically free natures to begin with, but that is hardly damaging to the freedom of the will.

    A final point: the issue is not whether what you do will make a difference (all actions in the world make a difference) but whether there is a ‘you’ to make the difference. If determinism is true there can be no you or me – just a couple of sub-systems in the natural flux. (A nice rather Buddhist-sounding conception.) A leaf makes a difference as it falls on the ground – it moves air out of the way as it does so, but precisely because this is a mechanistic and deterministic process, there is no self that does it. Ditto for human beings under determinism. The fact that the human brain is a far more complex sub-system is irrelevant.

    My conclusion: nothing of interest remains of free will if determinism is true – all we could ever uncover is the deterministic workings of a system. In this way compatibilism merely pretends to solve the philosophical problem. But since we simply (first-person) know that we are free, we need not worry about determinism being true. Clearly it cannot be.

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Paul, glad you enjoyed reading, and thanks for commenting.

    Sure, “swimming with Nature” is a poetic image. I feel that it implies the connectedness fitting a materialist. I am matter, Nature is matter. I am part of Nature, and I am immersed in the causal process of Nature.

    You assert that free will is known, as consciousness is, “we simply (first-person) know that we are free”. I don’t get that. It seems to beg the question. How do you know you are free, as opposed to this being a feeling or false intuition? I don’t, as a matter of fact, say it’s a feeling. It’s more like an intuition, a proposition sub-consciously formed about the relationship between self and the world, which implies a self separate from the world, as you seem to think is the case.

    My “self” is my body. So when you say, “If determinism is true there can be no you or me – just a couple of sub-systems in the natural flux,” I don’t see those conditions as mutually exclusive. I am a sub-system in the natural flux. You are. We are different sub-systems, so we have different pronouns attached. What do you think you are, a soul?

    “That first-person knowledge can exist at all is an inconvenience to a materialist mind but so far as I can see that’s just all the worse for materialism.” – This I could only deal with by a long and difficult discussion of consciousness from the materialist perspective. I’m planning a post on that. But I’d suggest it’s difficult to show the converse, that certain types of behaviour of our brains cannot possibly also have an internal subjective character. This is the incredulity that motivates Chalmers, Penrose, etc. It is also contested strongly by all that neurological evidence, even if correlation is not the same as causation or identity.

    “Crucially, we can acquire the right virtues (or not).” – If I’ve understood this – I’m not sure why you say, “(or not)” – it seems like begging the question again. Surely, we are capable of acquiring only those virtues that we are capable of acquiring. You seem to be assuming that we have some inherent power to choose the extent of that capacity. I see no reason to assume that. Depending on what you mean by virtues, evidence would again seem to refute it. If born into a shitty existence, abused and destitute…well, it’s very often “or not”.

    I’m pleased to see you’re an incompatibilist. Good to have your input.

  3. Yakaru says:

    I’m impressed with the way you’ve calmly and clearly summed up so many different views on this, and drawn a sensible conclusion (i.e. one that I agree with!) from it all.
    It’s difficult to deal with this (apparent) fact without going a bit mad — one must carefully reorganise the brain’s inner furniture to accommodate it. Or one can just accept it as a fact and not think about it and just keep on deciding to do things. Or only look at the way other people don’t have it…

    People who insist we do have it tend to overlook the fact that not having it does not exclude the fact that we can still learn things. They also overlook childhood — at what point does a fetus graduate to having free will?

    They also overlook the fact that it wouldn’t mean we can’t reflect on our motives and improve ourselves — all this different modules in the brain affect each other too, not just external factors.

    Then there’s the (apparent) fact that the self is an illusion. This is not only discoverable (I believe) subjectively, but also confirmed by those extraordinary split-brain experiments by Sperry. The right brain just sits there watching it all and not speaking, while the left brain confabulates all these reasons for one’s actions.

    It also doesn’t rule out meditation or meditative awareness. Consciousness itself does necessarily do anything apart from being aware (though I guess Dennett would disagree with that).

    I’m utterly clueless about quantum physics (in fact all physics post Galileo, I guess), so my question is this — is the notion that quantum physics could grant us free will just a slightly more earthly version of Cartesian dualism?

  4. lettersquash says:

    Hi Yakaru, thanks for a very interesting comment. You immediately made me think I didn’t look at enough angles – but I could think that forever and not write it at all – those are excellent points about still being able to learn things, and when in childhood such a thing as free will could arise, although I suppose someone could argue that it develops, like other skills a foetus doesn’t have. But it’s not like those things, as far as I can see. You’re right that it can put you on the edge of madness. I love your description of having to “reorganise the brain’s inner furniture to accommodate it”.

    Interesting also about just watching other people not having it. This reminds me of the studies that show we tend to attribute other people’s decisions more to external forces than our own, and our own more to personal agency.

    I think the lack of a “self” could perhaps leave the possibility of free will, but it would presumably mean that free will part of a changing process, of a dynamic self. But I’m not sure about all that. It would depend on a definition of the self. I’ve been puzzling about that since you said it before – no self, no free will. Maybe you’re pointing to a deeper (impossible) concept than my “no-self”! Thanks for the Sperry – I’ll look that up.

    As to you question, “is the notion that quantum physics could grant us free will just a slightly more earthly version of Cartesian dualism?”, I think it can be monist or dualist (or mental monist perhaps), and seems to just come from that empty place, incredulity. They seem to take the hard problem of consciousness as final – their subjective experience is entirely different from objective matter – and into their brain pops an idea to get round the impasse. For some, maybe consciousness isn’t physical, for others it’s physical but “weird” like QM.

    I think Penrose has the idea that humans have a literally unlimited “general intelligence”, which gives them an ability to “understand” anything comprehensible, where things like machine algorithms will fail, because they’re just machines. He really does seem to think “understanding” is different from computation, which for a world-class mathematician is quite alarming.

    He gave the example of a particular position in chess, which (he asserted) any reasonable chess player knows is unwinnable and needs to be called a draw, but a chess program will just keep going round in circles. It didn’t seem to occur to him that there may be limits to human intelligence, and it therefore may also be algorithmic, and he’s just chosen something that people can do and so far a chess program can’t (it just needs an upgrade). Also, I, as a chess novice, couldn’t tell it was unwinnable.

    And there are mathematical puzzles that we can prove are unsolveable, but he reckons no machine computation could know that, or something. Anyway, from all this, he’s trying to work out something to do with how tiny structures in the brain might collapse wave functions or something, hence giving us consciousness and with it general intelligence, (love?…) and understanding.

    Of course, it may be true, consciousness might be quantum computation rather than classical. Or it might be ethereal matrix-waves from the seventh dimension…nobody really understands them either.

  5. It IS a matter of semantics, what we call stuff. Pragmatically, “free will” is what we call it when a person decides for themselves what they “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence. That’s all it is. It requires nothing supernatural. It makes no assertions against reliable cause and effect. And yet it is sufficient for both moral and legal responsibility.

    What you and Slattery are talking about is “freedom from reliable cause and effect”. If we presume that all events are reliably caused by previous events, then it logically follows that every event that ever happens is “causally necessary”, and inevitably must happen.

    And that thought might initially scare you. If you’re a theist, then you may seek escape by appealing to the supernatural. If you’re an atheist, then you may seek solace in quantum indeterminism.

    But there’s no need. Because deterministic inevitability doesn’t change a damn thing. What you will inevitably do is exactly identical to what you would have done anyway. So it is not a meaningful or relevant constraint upon anyone’s freedom.

    In fact, every freedom we have, to do anything at all, requires a deterministic universe, one where we can count upon our actions having predictable effects.

    So, stop defining “free will” as “freedom from causation”. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or undue influence. Reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue, so it poses no threat to free will. And our choosing is a deterministic process, where our choice is necessitated by our goals and our reasoning, our thoughts and our feelings, and all the other stuff that makes us uniquely us. So, free will poses no threat to determinism.

    The problems of justice that you raise are about our concept of justice, not our concepts of free will.

    A system of justice protects and restores rights. A just penalty would naturally include (a) repairing the harm to the victim when possible, (b) correcting the behavior of the offender, (c) protecting the public until the behavior is corrected, and (d) doing no more harm to the offender or his rights than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

    Once you understand the objective goal of justice, then “just deserts”, which is simply “what a person justly deserves”, is immediately redefined, without mounting any unjustified attack upon the concept of free will.

  6. lettersquash says:

    Hi Marvin, how nice to see you here! Thanks for your deeply insightful comment. I agree with almost everything you say. Defined as you define it, free will is real, but, since it is a matter of semantics, the definition I’ve pointed to is also defensible, and is of social importance. You’ve no doubt been studying these matters for long enough, and are used to philosophical debates enough, for the idea of an escape from “reliable causation” to be immediately seen as problematic. Slattery, I, and a great many others, however, recognise that a large proportion of the population suffers exactly such an illusion. So, our definition is a reasonable one to consider, and then reasonably refute, because it seems deep in our psychologies that we have this ability – as deep as many of our other problematic intuitions.

    So, when you say, ‘Pragmatically, “free will” is what we call it when a person decides for themselves what they “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence,’ that is not exactly what most people understand by free will. What most people imagine is that something (usually supernatural, but often simply unspecific and unconsidered) allows them to overcome causality – indeed this is central to their self-identity as a human agent. So “deciding for themselves” means something very different. In the absence of identifiable “coercion”, they believe, they are free to will whatever they desire to and would ideally be physically possible, not bound by the inevitability that reliable causation forces upon them.

    But there are also normative semantic reasons to prefer our definition. “Reliable causation” (i.e. inevitability or determinism) can and arguably should be understood as “coercion”, and certainly is “influence”. The idea of inevitability isn’t properly expressed by “the lack of coercion”, because the lack of coercion suggests a remaining possibility of freedom (indeed this is the case in law, where you may be judged to be free to choose right or wrong when identifiable coercion is ruled out).

    Most people’s understanding of choosing and making decisions denies inevitability of the outcome. To ignore this and just accept it seems to miss an important educational function, which is why so many people would add unpleasant and unhelpful things to your sketch of justice.

    The advanced position you have reached in understanding this helps a great deal with the problem of people’s fears. So when you say, “deterministic inevitability doesn’t change a damn thing. What you will inevitably do is exactly identical to what you would have done anyway,” you’re right, but breaking the illusion most people have that that isn’t true does change a lot of things, which is why they are disgusted and frightened by it.

    When you say, “So it is not a meaningful or relevant constraint upon anyone’s freedom,” that seems a problematic definition of freedom that you’re using – you seem only to be saying that we never had it, so it not having it doesn’t matter. If we were actually free – incoherent though it may be – we would surely be free from the rigid constraint of always going to do only that which we are going to do. Yes, it’s a tautology. Most never consider this long enough to recognise it. Looking ahead, they believe they have every possible outcome available to them, not just one. So it seems perfectly reasonable to define inevitability as unfreedom, and most people, I believe, would agree. But words are just words, and your “freedom” is apparently coherent (just a bit odd):- there’s only one possible future, and we’re “free” to reach it with absolute certainty.

  7. The problem is that we both agree that “freedom from reliable causation” is an irrational concept. Yet you choose that as the definition of “free will” rather than the rational, pragmatic one (deciding for yourself what you will do, free of coercion or undue influence).

    You imagine that ordinary people are using the irrational definition. Yet if you ask anyone why they decided to buy this car instead of that one, and they will give you their reasons why this one was the best choice for them. Clearly they accept the fact that their choice was caused by their goals and their reasons. So they are not asserting that they are free from cause and effect.

    I believe that those who reject determinism do so because you portray it as a bogeyman that robs them of any their control over their own lives. And they should object, because that is a false narrative.

    Science embraces determinism because it gives them hope that they might understand the causes of important events that affect our lives. Our knowledge that polio is caused by a virus, and that a vaccination can prime the immune system to eliminate that virus, has given us control over an event that otherwise would control us.

    Reliable cause and effect empowers us. But the hard determinist (a.k.a. “free will skeptic”) concentrates upon the single logical fact of causal inevitability, and perversely converts determinism into something that enslaves us.

    So, really, you and Trick, and all the other scientists and philosophers who have been taken in by this silly old paradox, should stop spreading your message of fatalism. Because that’s what determinism minus free will amounts to.

  8. lettersquash says:

    ‘The problem is that we both agree that “freedom from reliable causation” is an irrational concept. Yet you choose that as the definition of “free will” rather than the rational, pragmatic one (deciding for yourself what you will do, free of coercion or undue influence).’

    Not really. I don’t choose the irrational definition. I perceive it as a good description of the definition people generally use who imagine they have that ability, which I then critique. I also use normal definitions of God and critique those. I don’t redefine God as something that might be true, having decided privately that those people are being irrational. I find your definition rather negative, as I’ve already suggested, a bit like defining God as something “above and beyond yourself” – it’s true, trivially, but not what people mean by God, or not the versions I consider non-trivial and wrong.

    Your definition avoids the more radical position I spelled out last time: there is just one possible future, which we will arrive at with 100% certainty. Just saying it doesn’t involve a gun to my head isn’t really specifying what it does involve. Determinism is an absolute and entire constraint, if it’s true. It is reasonable to think of it as the coercion of circumstances. Whether “due” or “undue”, these are not just “influences”, they are strictures, unavoidables, certainties, and we do not choose them.

    “Clearly they accept the fact that their choice was caused by their goals and their reasons. So they are not asserting that they are free from cause and effect.”

    No, they are /assuming/ that they are free from cause and effect, not asserting it – they haven’t thought about it. In my experience, that is exactly what they assume “free will” means. They baulk at the idea that their goals and reasons were entirely the product of earlier causes, about which they could do nothing whatever.

    ‘I believe that those who reject determinism do so because you portray it as a bogeyman that robs them of any their control over their own lives. And they should object, because that is a false narrative.’

    I don’t think so. I think a factual explanation of the issue causes most of us deep consternation. The facts of the matter mean that we /are/ without control over our own lives. The word “rob” is inappropriate because we never had it, but enlightenment to that fact is possible. “We” are a collection of molecules bound to do whatever it does through strict rules of causation and the laws of physics, by this view, are we not? In what way is that “having control over our lives”?

    Example: you may now think you have the freedom to respond or not, but whether you will or not is inevitable. How can you say you “control” that? It will depend on a whole lot of variables, every one of them entirely outside your control. That is precisely what it means if everything is determined, or even if some things aren’t but are acausal or random.

    ‘Reliable cause and effect empowers us. But the hard determinist (a.k.a. “free will skeptic”) concentrates upon the single logical fact of causal inevitability, and perversely converts determinism into something that enslaves us.’

    Your description is getting even more emotive, but if you prefer that term, yes, we are slaves to the causal process that has led us to this moment. I may be wrong, but I sense that you simply aren’t taking on board the factual matter, which is why you paint this with your disturbing images of being robbed and enslaved. If determinism is true, everything that happens is entirely inevitable. There are other facts in the universe, so we’re not “concentrating upon the single logical fact of causal inevitability”, and describing as clearly as possible the logical corollaries of it is not peverse or a conversion into anything else. We have no control. You say we have, despite determinism.

    You give the example of a discovered vaccine for polio, which means, you say, we have control over it. No, we don’t. We could not have not discovered the vaccine, nor could we or can we decide as a matter of free will how and when to use it – otherwise one denies determinism. We found it; we use it; we cure polio where before we did not.

    ‘So, really, you and Trick, and all the other scientists and philosophers who have been taken in by this silly old paradox, should stop spreading your message of fatalism. Because that’s what determinism minus free will amounts to.’

    I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m struggling to make sense of your last concept, “determinism minus free will” – allowing, I mean, for your definition of free will. Or did you mean our definition? Our definition isn’t something that can be subtracted from determinism, as far as I can see; it is inconsistent with it. The free-will ability I’m pointing to would be something like that our person was (at least in some instances) the unique progenitor of effects, like a first cause of things that happen, as one might imagine a God reaching in to meddle with the causal processes of the world (which is why people use supernaturalism to admit it). And I’m not sure what to subtract in the way of free will defined as you do, with a term that is already negative (and vague, by the way), the lack of “coercion” and “undue influence”.

    This is not fatalism. Determinists understand that their struggle, their thought and care, their deliberation, is causally productive as well as causally formed, so the news that we have no free will, although often first misunderstood to prescribe helpless resignation or inaction, does not indicate this at all (but those who are going to react that way will do so and those who don’t won’t). Fatalism carries this implication, that effort does not have effects, or any effort will result in the same effects. There are two entirely different conceptions of “what will be will be”: in one, my actions are relevant causal factors (even if they are determined); in the other, whatever I do doesn’t make any difference. The first view of determinism sharpens the mind and tends to make us more consequentialist in outlook (because we can learn new information, and this changes us); the second would have very dismal effects, almost in opposition – our actions would be stripped of effects, at least in regard to particular fated future events. I take your point very seriously and thank you for it – it is vital to stress this difference.

  9. Couple things at the outset. There have been studies of how people use the term “free will” in different practical scenarios. Dr. Eddy Nahmias has published a couple. Here’s the original one on “folk intuitions”: http://www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrary/nahmias.pdf

    Also, you’ll find that most dictionaries have two definitions of free will, mine and yours. Mine is usually in the number 1 spot and yours comes in 2nd. Here’s one example from Wiktionary:
    Free Will
    1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
    2. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

    Another issue is your obsession with “God”. Free will is an entirely secular concept, which has already been confused enough without trying to drag theology into it. Would you mind if we dispense with all the “supernatural” crap? It would make the rest of the discussion a lot simpler and more concise. Agreed? (Or is it the case that your position on free will is primarily motivated by a desire to attack religion?)

    Moving on. “Control” refers to our ability to reliably cause effects in the real world. I control my thermostat setting, and then my thermostat controls the heating or cooling system. You cannot say:

    “You give the example of a discovered vaccine for polio, which means, you say, we have control over it. No, we don’t. We could not have not discovered the vaccine, nor could we or can we decide as a matter of free will how and when to use it – otherwise one denies determinism.”
    …on the one hand, and then turn around and say …
    “We found it; we use it; we cure polio where before we did not.”

    What do you think it means to “control polio” if not to find and use a cure that prevents it?

    The insight that seems to escape you, is that you ARE a package of reliable cause and effect. You are not a separate thing being controlled by determinism, you are determinism in action. That mental event that results in a choice to do this rather than that, is you causally determining what happens next. If you hold the view that you are somehow separate from it, and thus in a position to be a victim of it, then you’re a dualist, holding on to a superstitious outlook.

    You say, “Determinists understand that their struggle, their thought and care, their deliberation, is causally productive as well as causally formed”. What do you mean by “causally productive”, do you mean that they actually “control” the occurrence events in the real world?

    That’s basically what I’m saying. We are not inanimate objects responding passively to physical forces. We are living organisms, specifically animated by biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. All living organisms exert some control over their environment, if only to acquire the food needed to survive. Living organisms change the face of the planet.

    Intelligent living organisms come with neurological machinery that allows them to symbolic model the external world within their heads. They can imagine different ways to satisfy their biological needs. And they can choose between these imagined possibilities, to decide which one they will spend the effort to actualize.

    And all of those activities also constitute “control”, especially top-down control, because the atoms and molecules that we are made of have no such ability. Physics becomes the passenger on the bus. Or rather, physics becomes the tool by which biology alters itself and its environment to improve its chances of survival. Biology uses physics, but physics cannot use biology. And intelligence adds another level to top-down causation. Intelligence uses biology to model the real world and make choices that biology without intelligence is incapable of making.

    And we refer to these as “abilities”, thing that “we” can do. And anything that prevents us from doing these things is called a “constraint”. Deciding for myself what I will do is constrained when someone holds a gun to my head and tells me to do something else.

    But deciding for myself what I will do is NOT constrained by the necessary mechanisms by which I do the deciding!

    The mechanism of decision, whether conscious or unconscious (it’s both by the way), cannot be viewed as a constraint upon the mechanism of decision. The mechanism of decision is only constrained by external coercion or internal mental injury or mental illness.

    “Free” has no meaning without referring to some meaningful and relevant constraint. Reliable cause and effect essential to the freedom of the mechanism to do its work. Only specific causes can be viewed as constraints, such as coercion and other undue influences.

  10. lettersquash says:

    Hi Marvin, I have quite a large number of criticisms of Nahmias’ study, but they’re probably not worth going into in detail here, because the findings, however doubtful, are in accordance with my view. These are that the “pre-philosophical” intuitive or “folk” position is not incompatibilist, so that even when people are primed with ideas of determinism, they still judge agents as having free will, being able to have done other than they did, and being morally responsible for their actions. You appear to be of the same opinion at least on one count.

    I find the whole question of assessing folk intuitions a bit pointless, especially since they have to bend over backwards to avoid educating anyone about the thing they’re supposed to be trying to assess people on! Conversely – despite this being anecdotal – it seems more salient to submit my experience, which is that when people are suitably educated on the facts of determinism and accept them as likely, they readily demonstrate that their default position was that they had free will, and it is now being threatened by the logic.

    “most dictionaries have two definitions of free will, mine and yours. Mine is usually in the number 1 spot and yours comes in 2nd”

    Indeed, in keeping with colloquial, intuitive understandings, which also supports my thesis. People begin with the commonsense version of free will, as I explained in my post, but there is a philosophical approach that some of us like to consider, as the second definition in your example specifically identified as philosophical.

    ‘Another issue is your obsession with “God”. Free will is an entirely secular concept, which has already been confused enough without trying to drag theology into it. Would you mind if we dispense with all the “supernatural” crap? It would make the rest of the discussion a lot simpler and more concise. Agreed? (Or is it the case that your position on free will is primarily motivated by a desire to attack religion?)’

    Not at all, I simply chose that as a vivid and well-trodden parallel to the problem I had with your first objection. You objected that I criticise an “irrational definition” of free will instead of finding one that (you say) is supportable. I nearly chose another comparison from philosophy, the p-zombie, but the fit wasn’t quite as close. People argue that philosophical zombies are impossible for a valid reason. Shall we tell them not to mention p-zombies if they’re impossible? Or shall we find a version of the p-zombie that we can get behind, one that’s identical in every way to a real human being, but never conscious, because? Demonstrating incompatibility is a well trusted ancient tool in philosophy.

    ‘What do you think it means to “control polio” if not to find and use a cure that prevents it?’

    Well, in the sense I was illustrating, it would mean that we were free not to do so (when in fact we did), or to do so (when in fact we did not). We control thermostats, after a long development of tool use from controling a flint, but we cannot “control” (exercise free will over) the process of human evolution by which we got here, since it happened. Free will scepticism from the determinist position can come from recognising that there’s nothing special about now. If we argue that only that which happened could have happened, we can’t argue that we’re free to choose what happens hereafter, because it’s the same process of cause and effect. If we argue that we’re free to choose now, we either deny determinism in the past, or there’s something I haven’t thought of to bridge the philosophical gap. I’ve not noticed anything in your writing to fill it.

    ‘The insight that seems to escape you, is that you ARE a package of reliable cause and effect. You are not a separate thing being controlled by determinism, you are determinism in action.’

    I think one can make the same analysis of the thermostat. You say that the thermostat “controls” the temperature, but it doesn’t have any free will to do so, does it? Why? Because you control the thermostat. Whether our being part of the causal process makes a difference to free will rests on whether we instigate a new causal process, one that cannot be traced to prior causes. Since the principle of determinism denies this, we cannot instigate any new causal process – all that we cause or “control” is, like the thermostat, controlled by, caused by, earlier causes.

    ‘If you hold the view that you are somehow separate from it, and thus in a position to be a victim of it, then you’re a dualist, holding on to a superstitious outlook.’

    You’re introducing the idea of being a victim. I was at pains to avoid that conception. I don’t suffer from my causes or limitations I’ve always had. But note that I do not imagine any separateness, and if anything would require separateness in order to be outside of the deterministic process. It is because I am part of the deterministic process that I obey it’s lawful and inevitable flow. I still “make decisions”, but we both seem to agree (I think you do) that we can’t make any other decision than the one we’re going to make! And yet you argue that we control events in the real world. I can’t square those. That is not the same as being “causally productive” – “effective” would be a better word, having effects, just we are causally determined to have particular ones. As a mathematician can’t have 2+2 and 5, we can’t have determinism and real control of the future, it seems blindingly evident to me. One of them is wrong.

    ‘We are not inanimate objects responding passively to physical forces. We are living organisms, specifically animated by biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. All living organisms exert some control over their environment, if only to acquire the food needed to survive. Living organisms change the face of the planet.’

    Arguments like this are great for avoiding the logic. Innoculate yourself against these tricks, by this method – ask the meta-question: “We have X … a drive to survive, say … but did we choose that by our free will? Obviously not. They evolved in our species over millions of years. That was an easy one. A bit harder: We have “control over the environment”. Okay: did we choose what control to exert over the environment? You might say yes, but we could also imagine that we chose what to do with the environment driven by the drives we didn’t choose. We were driven to find a cure for polio, because one existed and we have drives to care for others. It is, of course, possible to refute these points, but they are expressions of determinism, no more, no less, and their logic is absolute.

    ‘Intelligent living organisms come with neurological machinery that allows them to symbolic model the external world within their heads. They can imagine different ways to satisfy their biological needs. And they can choose between these imagined possibilities, to decide which one they will spend the effort to actualize.’

    Right, but could they control the scenarios they imagine? Could they write the algorithms by which their brains decide which scenario is the one they’re going to prefer and try to put into action?

    ‘And all of those activities also constitute “control”, especially top-down control, because the atoms and molecules that we are made of have no such ability.’

    Yes, they do. Since that is what we are made of.

    ‘Physics becomes the passenger on the bus. Or rather, physics becomes the tool by which biology alters itself and its environment to improve its chances of survival. Biology uses physics, but physics cannot use biology. And intelligence adds another level to top-down causation. Intelligence uses biology to model the real world and make choices that biology without intelligence is incapable of making.’

    The idea of biology using physics towards its survival suggests a teleology that is tirelessly refuted by many biologists. It also suffers the burden of proof. Since physics built and continues to animate bodies, I see no reason to imagine that at some point the upward direction of causality actually gets reversed.

    ‘The mechanism of decision, whether conscious or unconscious (it’s both by the way), cannot be viewed as a constraint upon the mechanism of decision.’

    The mechanism of decision cannot be free of the mechanism of decision, either, nor by the causes of the mechanism of decision.

    ‘The mechanism of decision is only constrained by external coercion or internal mental injury or mental illness.’

    How can you postulate that such a phenomenon as causal determinism is radically changed by such a wishy-washy definition as “mental illness”? There is nothing fundamentally different about a neuron firing “normally” and one firing due to some “injury”. These circumstances obviously demonstrate the lack of free will under certain conditions according to our intuitive view of what free will is (because we don’t understand why someone’s doing what they’re doing). That does not mean that it existed where these conditions do not obtain.

    ‘Only specific causes can be viewed as constraints, such as coercion and other undue influences.’

    “Specific causes” says nothing; it just indicates that there are, according to some normative view, identifiable causes. Determinism doesn’t depend on whether you can identify causes or not.

  11. Let me be clear about my position on determinism. I fully embrace it. Every thought going through your head and every feeling you are experiencing right now was causally necessary from any prior point in eternity.

    Our disagreement is about what this single fact implies in regards to free will. From my viewpoint every choice that I make of my own free will was causally necessary, and inevitably must have happened. Yet it is also an empirical fact that I was the specific object within the physical universe that performed the operation of choosing. And my choice reflected my immediate goals, my interests, my thoughts, and my feelings.

    Now, it could have been causally inevitable that someone would hold a gun to my head and force me to make a different choice, one that reflected his goals instead of mine.

    What is constant and shared by both of those two scenarios is causal inevitability. So, causal inevitability cannot be used to meaningfully distinguish between these two events. But its not just those two events. Every event that ever happens, or ever will happen, is causally necessary and inevitably must happen. It turns out that causal inevitability cannot distinguish between any two events. There are no events which are not causally inevitable.

    So, causal inevitability turns out to be a rather trivial truism. It is a background constant. Because it is never “not true”, it is an irrelevant fact that provides no useful information about any practical scenario.

    Luckily, we have lots of other concepts and terms to make meaningful and relevant distinctions. We use “free will”, for example, to distinguish the scenario where I am free to decide for myself versus the scenario where I am compelled by a guy holding a gun to my head to do his will instead of my own. And there are other undue influences that prevent me from deciding for myself what I will do, such as mental illness, hypnosis, authoritative command, etc..

    Now, you come to me with the idea that we should dispense with the meaningful and relevant distinction because of the trivial truism. You seem to think that your recent indoctrination with the idea of deterministic inevitability magically changes everything.

    It is my belief that absolutely nothing changes in any meaningful or relevant way as a result of the realization of perfectly reliable cause and effect, and the universal causal inevitability that it logically implies. I would suggest instead, that every human concept currently in use actually subsumes a reality of reliable causation, because that is the nature of the world in which these concepts evolved.

    So, I take issue specifically with your claim that, “If we argue that we’re free to choose now, we either deny determinism…”. The word “free” actually subsumes a world of reliable cause and effect. Without reliable causation, you’re not free to do anything.

    It follows then, that the word “free” can never be taken to imply the absence of reliable cause and effect. And I would defy you to supply an example where it does.

    The term “free” must reference a meaningful and relevant constraint. The gun to the head is a meaningful constraint upon my freedom to choose what I will do. But reliable cause and effect is not a meaningful constraint because it is how my choosing operates. And the gun to the head is a relevant constraint, because I may be subject to it under certain circumstance, but not under other circumstances. Reliable causation, on the other hand, is ALWAYS present. It is not something that anyone can, or needs to be, free of.

    In summary, there is a meaningful and relevant definition of free will, and there is a meaningless and irrelevant definition of free will.

    My definition is compatible with reliable cause and effect (determinism). Yours is not compatible with anything meaningful or relevant.

  12. lettersquash says:

    Marvin, thanks for these really useful thoughts. I think we are in danger of talking past each other due to our different definitions of free will, and I hope to avoid that and clarify our positions. Your first few paragraphs do so with yours regarding determinism, and I agree with them (at least while I consider determinism a valid position, on which I can’t say I’m 100%, but it seems highly plausible). Like Slattery, I am a hard incompatibilist, not a hard determinist.

    “Our disagreement is about what this single fact implies in regards to free will.”

    I don’t think this is quite true: I think it is largely about our different definitions of free will, which lead us to say different things about its existence or non-existence, and then I think we’re forgetting that we’re talking about different beasts. I say “largely”, because there is another area where we may have fundamentally different views about how the world works – I tend to reject the idea of downward causation as an ontological reality, and the directions of control that I criticised as teleological earlier – biology using physics in its future-focused activities to feed and reproduce, etc. These are deep (almost ubiquitous) illusions, IMO, but would take a whole other thread (and a lot of careful definitional groundwork and research) for me to elucidate.

    I disagree that “causal inevitability turns out to be a rather trivial truism”, too. Identifying that something is a physical reality everywhere and at all times, as you do, does not necessarily mean that this fact can immediately be ignored while we seek for things that are different in different scenarios, for the reason I gave – “most people” (probably) don’t know it, and it leads them to have many other false beliefs and make many other false statements of the utmost importance – ethical and political ones. People generally think they have (my definition of) free will: they believe that people could have done otherwise than they did, through their own powers (“will power”). This, as far as I can make out, you would refute, since, in your words, “Every event that ever happens, or ever will happen, is causally necessary and inevitably must happen.”

    People are making terrible mistakes from not knowing this. They have burning hatred for people who do things they disapprove of, they despise, take revenge, call “evil” and murder them, for doing things that were “causally necessary” and “inevitably must happen”. That is irrational and dangerous. People endlessly divide the world into “good” and “bad” people, meaning in some deep ontological sense, for the things they couldn’t help but do through “causal necessity”.

    So, rather than dismiss determinism as a trivial truism, it seems important to educate people on its implications, and I am dismayed that you find philosophers discussing it doing some dreadful disservice and suggesting we stop. I am glad to have heard and begun to understand your position, but I cannot share it. Conversely, I find it dangerous to water down this important fact, as I think you do, by then insisting that people have “free will”, defining this with what appears to me almost pragmatic legalese (“undue influence” reminds me of “beyond reasonable doubt”). These questions of influence and coercion are epistemic judgements – as I said, they imply that our finding identifiable causes makes some kind of real difference, acting as a smoke-screen for the ontological fact (with which you agree) that there there are always inescapable reasons that exist anyway, whether we can discover them or not.

    Your kinds of arguments, I believe, risk people simply thinking they can shift blame, for example, from someone forced to do something we judge unhelpful, because there is someone holding a gun to their head (as jurors commonly do), but does not help us to recognise that the “event” of that “coercion” was “causally necessary” and “inevitably must [have] happen[ed]” (so the guy could not have done otherwise than to hold the gun to the other guy’s head, and blame is not due).

    The no-free-will we draw attention to, this “trivial truism”, denies us the moralistic judgement of inherent evil that is so ubiquitous, replacing it with the requirement to understand real causes of people’s actions, by knowing that, were we them, in their circumstances, with their nature and nurture, we would have done exactly what they did. I find that revolutionary rather than trivial. Of course, consequentialist ethics does not rule out any measure designed to change the causes of harm, such as imprisonment, but our express and heart-felt reasons for doing these things make a very big difference. I believe much recividism is caused by criminals being told, or already thinking, they are just bad people, rather than being helped to understand and remove the actual causes of their criminality.

    ‘Luckily, we have lots of other concepts and terms to make meaningful and relevant distinctions. We use “free will”, for example […]’

    It may be pragmatically useful to have terms that distinguish immediate identifiable and powerful causes, such as the gun to the head, but I don’t think choosing “free will” for this helps at all, because “free will” suggests a binary condition – we have it or don’t – and is traditionally used in this sense, whereas your use makes it a relative, arbitrary line in the sand, dependent, as I said, on epistemology. This is amply demonstrated by the history of law, where people have been judged as having acted through their own free will before particular conditions (such as a mental illness) were identified. Just saying, “but they were in fact mentally ill” (as your text implies we might do) misses the absolute fact that inevitable unmitigable causes exist whether we are ever able to discover them or not (put another way, mental illness is relative). So it seems to me that you are drawing irrational lines in the sand, on vague, arbitrary, epistemic judgements, when you insist on defining free will as you do. Rather than nothing changing when we accept our “trivial truism”, it is deeply challenging, and nothing much changes at all by pretending that free will involves some arbitrary identifiable condition, a subset of actually accepted conditions that pertain to everything that happens.

    Similarly, your views on “intelligence” and “biology” being able to “use physics” to its “free will” ends simply reinforces the idea that there is little to be done about people choosing to do bad things, since it is their intelligence that was “in control”, which you seem to imply quite strongly and I cannot square with ‘Every thought going through your head and every feeling you are experiencing right now was causally necessary from any prior point in eternity.’ As I said, this fact makes us as “in control” and “free” as a thermostat. When a thermostat switches the heating on, it is the proximal cause of the effect, and just as with a human being, everything about that event is traceable to prior causes.

    And your idea that necessity (or “reliable causation”) is what makes us free seems where these irreconcilable views clash most obviously. It makes us able to predict the effects of causes with some reliability. That isn’t freedom by most people’s comprehension of the word.

    However, if I adjust terms, I think there are important insights in your position, as I said, particularly in helping people understand that what they do does make a difference, and according to approximately reliable relationships of cause and effect. This is a mind-bending paradox when first we encounter it, which is also why determinism isn’t a trivial truism to be ignored while important words like “free will” are attached to something else.

  13. The issue is whether the single fact of universal causal inevitability has any practical utility. I’m claiming that it does not. And it is because it does not, that people are generally unaware of it. If the fact actually made a meaningful or relevant distinction, one that could help us to deal better with some practical issue, then we’d bring it up. And everyone who cared about that issue would be aware of it.

    For example, you suggest say that people ” have burning hatred for people who do things they disapprove of, they despise, take revenge, call ‘evil’ and murder them, for doing things that were ‘causally necessary’ and ‘inevitably must happen’ ”

    If the hatred is appropriate for the act, then why would causal inevitability remove the hatred? Isn’t it true that the hatred was also causally inevitable? Knowledge of the fact of causal inevitability does not produce the change you desire.

    But an understanding of the specific causes of the behavior might guide us to a better means of preventing and correcting it. And that’s what Psychology, Sociology, Criminology, and other social sciences provide: knowledge of specific causes, causes that we might do something about.

    Knowledge of causal inevitability offers us nothing that we can put to any practical use. If you claim that it “excuses” the unfortunate criminal’s behavior, then you must also claim that it excuses the mob that broke into the jail, took him to the nearest tree, and strung him up.

    And you complain that, “nothing much changes at all by pretending that free will involves some arbitrary identifiable condition, a subset of actually accepted conditions that pertain to everything that happens”. But free will makes a key distinction when it comes to choosing the means of correction.

    If the criminal harm was accidental, then some penalty sufficient to make the person more careful in the future would be appropriate. If the criminal harm were caused because someone was holding a gun to his head forcing him to do something against his will, the the correction is simply to remove the source of the threat. If the criminal harm were caused by a mental impairment, then he would be treated in a secure medical facility. And if the harm were committed deliberately (of his own free will), due to the offender’s desire for some personal gain at the expense of others, then we need to do what is reasonably necessary to change how he thinks about such things in the future.

    Causal inevitability gives us nothing useful, because everything is always causally inevitable. But knowing the specific causes gives us information we can use to effectively deal with the problem.

  14. lettersquash says:

    ‘If the hatred is appropriate for the act, then why would causal inevitability remove the hatred?’

    You seem to be suggesting that an act has some inherent hatred-worthiness, and the question then tags on causal inevitability as an afterthought. I would suggest that the judgement of our appropriate response to an act, and also our natural inclination towards it, are influenced strongly by whether we know, or do not know, that it was inevitable. But I wasn’t talking about hating an act so much as hating people for their acts.

    If we suffer from the delusion that someone makes decisions freely – i.e. without the natural constraints of causal process that we call inevitability – that tends to elicit very different responses. It applies to the whole range of human behaviours and conditions. If we know about inevitability as a fundamental law behind all events, we are more likely to have pity when we see someone destitute on the streets. If we believe people are the causes of their condition in life, we won’t have compassion – they will be to blame. Since your descriptions of the relevant issues seem equivocal to me, at one time reiterating inevitability, the next saying we have free will, it is hard to know whether you would say that people are the causes of their conditions and to blame for their misfortunes in that sense or not! To my mind, determinism makes it impossible for them to be responsible in that sense. If we criticise them for making bad decisions that led to their condition, we are forgetting that they could only make the decisions they made. You make all manner of pointless extrapolations of this point, saying that it becomes silly and we must blame the Big Bang, neatly ignoring the practical difference clearly indicated by this change of understanding, so badly lacking in the world (if determinism is indeed true). Furthermore, instead of pushing back blame to the Big Bang, it is actually possible to become more equanimous about the facts of reality and not blame anything for the way it is. It’s a traditional goal of many religious practices, accepting what is.

    ‘Isn’t it true that the hatred was also causally inevitable?’

    Of course.

    ‘Knowledge of the fact of causal inevitability does not produce the change you desire.’

    Was that meant to follow from the above? If so, it does not. If not, it is an opinion I’ve seen no evidence of, and it doesn’t match my own experience. The hatred is often caused by the lack of knowledge of causal inevitability, so yes, it’s causally inevitable for those who do not know that free will is an illusion. If the same person then learns that it is, there is little reason to hate, partly from recognising that we might be in the same position ourselves, being judged by them in our position. This view has tremendous potential for leveling our appreciation of self and others. Just imagine if we stopped blaming people for the bad things they couldn’t help but do? And isn’t it irrational to blame people for the things they can’t help doing? And you know they can’t help doing them. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe these are instances where their intelligence or biology has the power to overcome physics, rendering them free, willing agents despite every event being inevitable…you really ought to work out which it is, Marvin.

    ‘But an understanding of the specific causes of the behavior might guide us to a better means of preventing and correcting it. And that’s what Psychology, Sociology, Criminology, and other social sciences provide: knowledge of specific causes, causes that we might do something about.’

    Nothing in free-will scepticism undermines that.

    ‘Knowledge of causal inevitability offers us nothing that we can put to any practical use. If you claim that it “excuses” the unfortunate criminal’s behavior, then you must also claim that it excuses the mob that broke into the jail, took him to the nearest tree, and strung him up.’

    Both claims are true. But what is likely, that the mob know that all events are inevitable, and their intended victim had no alternative but to commit whatever act they’re angry about, or that they believe in free will, which means that people make particular events happen, when they could have done otherwise, and are therefore entirely responsible for the crime, and therefore deserve punishment?

    And, of course, those relative judgements – “accident”, “gun to the head”, etc. – do imply different diagnoses of some specific causes and strategies for correction. We don’t have to invoke free will to be able to analyse and respond to them, as you imply. So you’re wrong to say that ‘free will makes a key distinction when it comes to choosing the means of correction.’ As free will sceptics, we can identify causes and choose the means of correction.

    ‘Causal inevitability gives us nothing useful, because everything is always causally inevitable. But knowing the specific causes gives us information we can use to effectively deal with the problem.’

    This is a false dichotomy, and the first sentence is untrue. Knowing such a fundamental thing as a physical law is important, and it does not blind us to specific causes. If anything, it primes us to look for them.

    If someone commits a crime for selfish reasons, not caring about anyone else, you seem to indicate that this implicates them, but you describe (at least in the extreme) a psychopath, and psychopaths don’t choose to be psychopaths. If you say this falls into the category of mental illness, making them lack free will, you’ve a big problem, because the vast and complex mix of variables influencing every decision people make would need to be analysed, all in order to reach this arbitrary (made up) binary judgement of whether they had free will and ought to be blamed or not. Knowing that determinism means nobody has free will obviates the need for this binary judgement of when “intelligence” and “biology” has “used” physics and hence free will obtains, and when it has failed.

    We have to try to understand the complex web of causes as best we can anyway, in order to find the best corrective measure, but trying to do so to arrive at that unreal binary condition is a distraction, and its blunt judgement will tend to make crude prescriptions.

  15. John: “If someone commits a crime for selfish reasons, not caring about anyone else, you seem to indicate that this implicates them, but you describe (at least in the extreme) a psychopath, and psychopaths don’t choose to be psychopaths.”

    Marvin: No, I’m not talking about a psychopath. I’m talking about someone selling cocaine or other drugs on the corner to school kids. It’s a steady income, that repeatedly rewards the drug dealer for his behavior. And as long as he is getting away with it, he has no motivation to change. His behavior is rational, a simple calculation of costs and benefits. Any unfortunate outcomes are the responsibility of his customers.

    So, how do you correct his behavior? You’ve repeatedly said that we cannot blame him for his behavior. Please advise.

    John: “You seem to be suggesting that an act has some inherent hatred-worthiness …”

    Marvin: The other day I watched an old movie, “A Time to Kill”. It was about a black father whose 7 year old daughter was raped, beaten, and hung by two drunk white guys. Yeah, I think there are acts that most people would agree are “hatred-worthy”.

    John: “But I wasn’t talking about hating an act so much as hating people for their acts.”

    Marvin: I think the point of the movie was an allegory demonstrating that some people get hated for good reason. By holding up such examples, we teach each other that certain behavior will subject us to community blame and hatred. So, someone is less likely to engage in such behavior. It is a deterministic tool society employs to communicate and sustain norms of behavior.

    John: “If we know about inevitability as a fundamental law behind all events, we are more likely to have pity when we see someone destitute on the streets.”

    Marvin: If it was inevitable that he would be destitute, then what would be the point of our pity? The fact of universal causal inevitability tells us that his destitution is his “lot in life”, does it not? If that’s his lot in life, then what’s the point of our pity?

    John: “If we believe people are the causes of their condition in life, we won’t have compassion – they will be to blame.”

    Marvin: My point is that knowledge of inevitability does not automatically come with the benefits (in this case compassion) that you claim. In fact, it supplies us with a clear excuse for taking no action to assist the destitute. You shift the blame from the destitute person to causal inevitability. We might take steps to assist the destitute, by providing them with the tools they need to succeed in life. But blaming causal inevitability is a dead end, because there is nothing that can be done to “fix” causal inevitability.

    John: “your descriptions of the relevant issues seem equivocal to me, at one time reiterating inevitability, the next saying we have free will, it is hard to know whether you would say that people are the causes of their conditions and to blame for their misfortunes in that sense or not!”

    Marvin: Deterministic inevitability, correctly understood, does not remove our causal agency or our responsibility. When correctly understood, deterministic inevitability INCORPORATES our causal agency in the overall scheme of causation. And that is the key insight that you’re missing.

    If you presume that physics is sufficient to explain all causation, then all of your solutions to social problems like criminal behavior or destitution will need to be expressed in terms found in a textbook on physics.

    Determinism, to be correct and true, must incorporate all three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. Any version of determinism that fails to do this is incomplete, and thus false.

    John: “the practical difference clearly indicated by this change of understanding”

    Marvin: … is a product of the free will skeptics naive imagination. The tools of social change are already here: Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Politics, etc. The destitute and the criminal are both products of a community that has not yet had the political will to address them in a responsible and effective manner. You’re not telling us anything new when you say that the individual is not solely to blame for his condition. And you’re not telling us anything useful when you say that every event is inevitable. And worst, you’re likely to impede social progress by avoiding the real issues, thinking that you have a “magic bullet” that will save us all.

    Free will and responsibility are concepts essential to personal and social change.

  16. lettersquash says:

    So, how do you correct [a drug dealer’s] behavior? You’ve repeatedly said that we cannot blame him for his behavior. Please advise.

    We understand his behaviour as the result of wider causes. He may typically have started out taking some drugs for kicks like other kids, become hopelessly addicted, perhaps partly due to poor social conditions and lack of opportunities, and, in order to fund his habit, his rational choices might then diminish towards dealing drugs or robbing people. This is actually how a lot of drug dealers begin. I’ve worked with a few. So, depending on a lot of complex factors, we might consider legalization and state control of a drug, or put more money into rehabilitation. Just blaming the drug dealer, or any criminal, isn’t reasonable sociologically even if you believe in free will, because of these enmeshed causal processes.

    It was about a black father whose 7 year old daughter was raped, beaten, and hung by two drunk white guys. Yeah, I think there are acts that most people would agree are “hatred-worthy”.

    Yes, I hate people getting raped, beaten and hung. I acknowledged that it is the person that we ought not hate, but the idea of their free will encourages hating people too.

    I think the point of the movie was an allegory demonstrating that some people get hated for good reason.

    Hating for good reasons. I don’t know what to say. I see no good reason to hate anybody. It seemed pretty stupid before I argued about free will scepticism, to be honest.

    By holding up such examples, we teach each other that certain behavior will subject us to community blame and hatred. So, someone is less likely to engage in such behavior. It is a deterministic tool society employs to communicate and sustain norms of behavior.

    I would suggest that hatred isn’t a rationally-applied sociological tool. It is a primitive emotion, probably sublimating fear by stimulating a readiness for aggression. It may be difficult to support your view that hating and blaming actually does much good empirically (althought it might be difficult to show the opposite). Ironically, you chose the phrase “sustain norms of behaviour” – are they what we see around us today, with prisons heaving and thousands being gunned down and stabbed? Is society so nice because we blame and hate? Admittedly, it could possibly be worse without, but there’s a tendency for hatred to be reflected (because aggression elicits fear, which is translated into aggression in the other). And reliance on this “tool” could be just what we need to avoid noticing wider sociological solutions, so another drug dealer gets incarcerated with all the others.

    My point is that knowledge of inevitability does not automatically come with the benefits (in this case compassion) that you claim.

    Clearly not in your case, but I can’t understand why. I think it’s because you haven’t quite got the idea yet. You seem to keep trying to imagine some reason why things you do aren’t actually inevitable after all.

    In fact, it supplies us with a clear excuse for taking no action to assist the destitute. You shift the blame from the destitute person to causal inevitability.

    Shifting blame is something you’ve introduced. Determinism ought to remove blame.

    We might take steps to assist the destitute, by providing them with the tools they need to succeed in life. But blaming causal inevitability is a dead end, because there is nothing that can be done to “fix” causal inevitability.

    I think this is your straw “boogeyman” version of causation that you imagine we invent, so that we can blame it instead of the person. It is not necessary to “fix” causal inevitability. You say we might provide help to the destitute, as if that followed from blaming them for their condition. It does not. If they were responsible for their condition, why help them? They chose it. If I squint hard I can just about make some sort of sense of your “excuse” version, but it strikes me as upside down, an odd formulation indeed. The inevitability of someone’s suffering as part of the universal causal process doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, it just stops us making the person the blame-worthy focus of our judgemental attentions. There is a whole complex river of causality to consider and tweak, as you know. Of course, the person’s psychology may be one element, but we’re not to blame for our psychology either.

    Deterministic inevitability, correctly understood, does not remove our causal agency or our responsibility. When correctly understood, deterministic inevitability INCORPORATES our causal agency in the overall scheme of causation. And that is the key insight that you’re missing.

    Sometimes people see things differently, Marvin. I don’t think I’m missing this key insight. I’m reading it very carefully (as I’ve done many times before from you, since we met on Ted Howard’s blog), I’ve analysed it and thought it through, and I simply disagree. If I define “causal agency” as meaning “the ability to have effects in the world”, as I’ve explained in the post, of course, we still have that. We do things, they have effects. But “causal agency” (under determinism) cannot imply that we can do A or B or C when in actual fact we can only do B.

    I can paraphrase that: deterministic inevitability “incorporates” the causal agency of a thermostat in the overall scheme of causation. Likewise, it can’t choose what temperature it’s going to switch on and off. We may be extremely complex machines, with lots of inter-related variables, but that doesn’t change the fact that we cannot do anything other than the thing we’re bound to do. Bound. Notice that important and perfectly salient word.

    Inevitability is a limitation, not a freedom. Cause X always going to effect B, never A or C, is a limitation. And it is singular, just one effect follows a cause or combination of causes, and you don’t get much more bound and limited than that.

    You call it a freedom because it gives us “the freedom” to predict certain outcomes when we take certain actions. Is that a freedom? No. It’s a colloquialism to call it freedom. It should be described as a necessary condition for reliable causation, but that’s not a freedom. Facilitation of one thing by another is not the delivering of a freedom, and certainly not any kind of fundamental freedom as it relates to will.

    If you presume that physics is sufficient to explain all causation, then all of your solutions to social problems like criminal behavior or destitution will need to be expressed in terms found in a textbook on physics.

    No. Fundamental explanations are not exclusive. It is perfectly possible to support causal reductionism without writing political manifestos or symphonies in physics equations. Higher-level descriptions and solutions are often much more useful or the only ones available.

    But all this – downward causation and so on – is irrelevant unless you think it changes the inevitability of outcomes. You don’t, because you’re a determinist, yet you argue for free will, apparently defined as whatever is going on that constitutes a person doing what they inevitably are doing.

    You’re not telling us anything new when you say that the individual is not solely to blame for his condition.

    I’m not telling you that. I’m telling you he’s not to blame for his condition at all. Generally we don’t blame people for things they couldn’t help. People can’t “help” their inevitable condition. He is of course part of the causal flow, but that doesn’t give him free will or “just deserts responsibility”, because all the thoughts and other events going on at the point of any action or decision are effects inevitably following from causes that are inevitable effects of prior causes. That’s what determinism means. So all you’re left with to put the label “free will” on is a rather arbitrary isolation of the causal processes that you consider proximal to the person at the time…none of which the person is to blame for.

    And worst, you’re likely to impede social progress by avoiding the real issues, thinking that you have a “magic bullet” that will save us all.

    This is nothing like my position. Where did I imply any such thing as a “magic bullet” or saving us all? Is this the determinism-as-entity you imagine I’ve created? You created that. If anything, society suffers from something like a magic bullet of blaming (and praising) individuals for their various conditions and actions, failing to look for “real issues”.

    Free will and responsibility are concepts essential to personal and social change.

    Depending on definition, that may be true or untrue. Your definition of free will is no more than the proximal causes of inevitable actions of a person that have consequences, and I don’t deny its reality, I just think it’s a trivial and misleading definition of free will. My definition, its logical refutation, does not remove the function of learning, by which we make different decisions in similar circumstances from having different information input at a later time. So personal and social change are both accounted for.

  17. John: “He may typically have started out taking some drugs for kicks like other kids, become hopelessly addicted…”

    Marvin: No, he never was addicted. He was too smart for that. He simply wanted a way to make lots of money. Selling cocaine, heroin, mollies, and other popular drugs earned him a great deal of cash. He chose to do this of his own free will. He had other options for earning money, but none of them was nearly as profitable as selling drugs. It was a rational calculation of costs and benefits. So far, the benefits have far outweighed his costs. So, how do we correct his behavior?

    John: “I see no good reason to hate anybody.”

    Marvin: Okay. We can set hate aside. How about strong disapproval? In the William Bowers study, “Student Dishonesty and its Control in College”, back in 1964 (yep, that’s when I was in college), Bowers found that the single highest correlate of a student’s choice not to cheat was “perceived peer disapproval”. It actually had a higher correlation than person disapproval. So, one of the ways to change the drug dealer’s behavior is to convey strong disapproval of his prior actions throughout the rehabilitation process. We don’t want him to continue thinking it’s okay.

    John: “And reliance on this “tool” could be just what we need to avoid noticing wider sociological solutions…”

    Marvin: Of course we need to address social problems that encourage criminal behavior. But we still need to correct our drug dealer. And if he is ever to be released, his correction must be sustainable even in a less than ideal culture. So, still looking for your answer to how we correct his behavior.

    John: “Determinism ought to remove blame.”

    Marvin: So, you’d even rule out disapproval of the drug dealer’s actions? No harm, no foul? But there was harm. Kids got addicted to his drugs. And his choices were the source of that harm. So, again, how do you plan to correct his behavior?

    John: “There is a whole complex river of causality to consider and tweak, as you know.”

    Marvin: Perhaps you could suggest a few methods for correcting someone who deliberately chose to profit at the expense of others? I’m beginning to suspect that you have nothing to offer.

    John: “But “causal agency” (under determinism) cannot imply that we can do A or B or C when in actual fact we can only do B.”

    Marvin: Okay, so we’re done discussing how to fix our drug dealer and have moved back to determinism.

    John: “We may be extremely complex machines, with lots of inter-related variables, but that doesn’t change the fact that we cannot do anything other than the thing we’re bound to do. Bound. Notice that important and perfectly salient word.”

    Marvin: Aha! So all we need to figure out is what it is that we’re bound to do! … Uh, how do you do that? Describe the operation by which we determine whether we are bound to do A or B or C.

    John: “But all this – downward causation and so on – is irrelevant unless you think it changes the inevitability of outcomes. You don’t, because you’re a determinist …”

    Marvin: Living organisms, and especially intelligent species, while originating from a massive variety of unplanned physical combinations, now actively alters its physical environment to suit its own biological needs. The origin was certainly bottom-up, but the new object, due to its specific organization, is imposing its will upon the physical environment. You cannot explain or predict the behavior of this new object using only the laws of physics.

    We can and do assume that rational causation and biological causation are as reliable as physical causation. Such that every event can, at least in theory, be fully accounted for by some specific combination of physical, biological, and rational causation. If causation is reliable at each level, then the combinations will also produce reliable outcomes.

  18. lettersquash says:

    He chose to do this of his own free will.

    That is to be decided.

    He had other options for earning money, but none of them was nearly as profitable as selling drugs. It was a rational calculation of costs and benefits.

    Having “other options” is a common point of contention in this debate. We can consider “options” to mean, on the one hand, the range of ideas that came to him, the choices theoretically available to a person at any time. Or, under determinism, since only one “option” can ever be realised in any specific case, we can say there is only one “option” in reality. These are of course definitional issues, semantics, but determinism seems to require the latter, would you agree?

    This is quite hard to understand and accept, partly because we can’t know which “option” is the determined one ahead of time. This is our normal experience, that a large number of “options” seems to lie ahead of us, truly available to us. So it seems that, for some reason, now must be different, true freedom of choice must exist now. But we can’t have that and determinism. The whole point of this topic is to question our intuitive feeling that real options lie ahead of us. The logic is sound: if determinism is assumed to be true, ontologically there can only ever be one possible or viable option – that is simply what determinism means. No matter how much we “weigh up the options”, determinism is the position that we’re just going through inevitable motions towards one inevitable result.

    So far, the benefits have far outweighed his costs. So, how do we correct his behavior.

    I’m not sure what you feel is missing from my earlier prescription. We can alter any of the causal variables that may be relevant, including his psychology (and, incidentally, we will of course do so according to our own inevitable causation). The range of them isn’t different for the free-will sceptic, although there may be less emphasis on fixing the (faulty, blameworthy, hated) person when we lose the ancient default assumption of free will and just-deserts responsibility.

    Okay. We can set hate aside.

    Yes, that’s a good idea. I’d prefer a fanfare, but a casual aside will do.

    How about strong disapproval?

    That’s much better. Especially as it implies an act rather than a person.

    So, you’d even rule out disapproval of the drug dealer’s actions?

    What on earth led you to that idea? Illegal acts are generally damaging just by being illegal, and dealing in illegal drugs is extremely damaging. It’s very damaging to the customers, and usually to the dealer, who is living with high levels of stress and anxiety, risking violence from other criminals, arrest and prosecution, self-recrimination, manslaughter charges, etc. So-called “rational” decisions are made with all sorts of intuitive guesses at what the outcomes will be of the various “options” available. It’s easy, as you do, to say that he made a rational decision, as though humans had perfect foresight and were in some cases 100% sane. These are abstractions, not realities. It was also easy to say that he was too clever to get caught up in drug addiction, but I remember watching a documentary about drug dealers, in which one reminded us that the real drug is money. So your clever drug dealer’s rational decision was pretty stupid, and one of the insights from free-will scepticism is this understanding that when people do “bad things”, they’re almost always hurting themselves and not making good decisions, even if they are using reason and therefore technically making “rational decisions”. We don’t need free-will scepticism to see this, but it helps. Working as an addictions counsellor for ten years can help too.

    Perhaps you could suggest a few methods for correcting someone who deliberately chose to profit at the expense of others? I’m beginning to suspect that you have nothing to offer.

    Answers to the above are going to be details based on political preferences. Can you tell me why this is of any value to the discussion? My having or not having any such ideas to offer (or your approval of them) might begin to look like success or failure to argue the case against free will.

    John: “But “causal agency” (under determinism) cannot imply that we can do A or B or C when in actual fact we can only do B.”
    Marvin: Okay, so we’re done discussing how to fix our drug dealer and have moved back to determinism.

    I’ve been discussing all of this with determinism as an axiom. I’ve not departed from it. Requiring only that we “fix our drug dealer”, accusations that my position means all I can do is “fix deterministic causation” which is an impossible “boogeyman”, and your insinuation that somehow downward causation also might rescue you from its indelible logic, these are where we departed from it. I wasn’t moving back to it – I was yet again reminding you of the axiom we are both supposed to be working under.

    Aha! So all we need to figure out is what it is that we’re bound to do! … Uh, how do you do that? Describe the operation by which we determine whether we are bound to do A or B or C.

    Your questions seem to indicate that you’ve not taken stock of the introductory concepts in the history of the debate, nor arrived at a set of self-consistent views. Determinism does not require knowledge of outcomes, the ability to predict what is determined, and unfortunately I cannot “describe the operation by which we determine whether we are bound to do A or B or C”. Now, does that change anything (apart from me failing your irrelevant tests)? Are you implying that I should be as intelligent as Laplace’s demon and know every motion of every particle…or…what? – determinism is wrong? – determinism is right but your impotent version of “free will” exists?

    John: “But all this – downward causation and so on – is irrelevant unless you think it changes the inevitability of outcomes. You don’t, because you’re a determinist …”

    Marvin: Living organisms, and especially intelligent species, while originating from a massive variety of unplanned physical combinations, now actively alters its physical environment to suit its own biological needs. The origin was certainly bottom-up, but the new object, due to its specific organization, is imposing its will upon the physical environment. You cannot explain or predict the behavior of this new object using only the laws of physics.

    My objection was already expressed in the bit you quoted. Could you please clarify “imposing its will upon the physical environment”? Would it be correct to describe this “imposing its will” as escaping inevitability of outcomes? If so, you seem to have lost sight of the axiom again. If not, it’s irrelevant “will imposition”.

    Are you saying that biology transforms inevitability into “evitability” (Dennett says something like this, although I’ve not read his relevant treatises)? Are you saying that those impossible options (not-B, in my example) are actually transmuted by life and intelligence into true, parallel, viable options? If so, you provide an argument that, I believe, removes the principle of determinism (at these higher levels). Things are not determined, you seem to imply, and “freedom evolves” (Dennett).

    That’s fine, as far as it goes. It would just help the debate if you fit your pronouncements on biology and physics into the general discourse instead of arguing two things at once. You seem to have two incompatible versions of “free will”. The first is deterministic, but just an arbitrary demarcation of the set of causal processes going on in an organism as part of the wider causal process (like saying a group of water molecules are “free” while they float downstream with the rest), and this second one, where vague identification of “biology” as having willful abilities to “use physics” suggests a non-deterministic type of free will, in which actual viable options exist before an organism, out of which it can really choose freely.

    It really would help if you stopped hand-waving towards libertarian free will whilst declaring that you’re a determinist, or explain why everybody else in the field is wrong that these are incompatible positions.

    I should also say that I reject your identification of “biology” as some kind of metaphysical entity distinct from “physics”, by which you imply that the first can “impose its will” on the second. It abuses the idea that any biological process is identical to the physics of which it is made. It is one of the fundamental ideas of material monism. Again, you declare that you are a physicalist quite strongly, then undermine this by suggesting that concepts like “biology” or “intelligence” have their own capacities. So, as well as hand-waving towards liberarianism, you hand-wave towards property dualism. To my mind, that is the minimum required for “downward causation”, Slattery seems to argue for it, and I disagree with him on that point.

    I appreciate that these are very difficult subjects, but we need to be careful to specify exactly what we mean when we talk about “biology” being able to, as it were, turn the causal tables on “physics” (of which it is built), “use” it, “impose its will” on it, etc. But to me it sounds like one hand clapping, metaphysical sophistry, magic. If I’m wrong and it’s possible and true, it then sounds like non-determinism, and incompatibilist free will is rescued. I’d probably be very happy.

    Many thanks for your very instructive comments.

  19. John: “Or, under determinism, since only one “option” can ever be realised in any specific case, we can say there is only one “option” in reality. These are of course definitional issues, semantics, but determinism seems to require the latter, would you agree?”

    Marvin: You probably don’t realize it, but you are speaking “figuratively”. If we were to spell out what you’re actually saying, it would be this: “under determinism, it is AS IF there is only one option in reality”. The problem is that “figurative” statements are always “literally” false.

    I use a simpler example to demonstrate this. A woman goes into a new restaurant, peruses the menu to find something that will satisfy her hunger and her tastes, but which is also healthy and without excessive calories. The Chef Salad looks like it will best satisfy all her goals, so she decides she “will” have the Chef Salad. She tells the waiter, “I will have the Chef Salad. Thank you.”

    We may correctly assert that it was causally inevitable, from any prior point in eternity, that she would choose the Chef Salad. And you can suggest, figuratively, that it is “as if” she had only one options. But she literally had a menu of options to choose from.

    And if you assert that she “really” or “actually” had only one option, it would be counterfactual. It would be literally false. She really and actually had a menu of “real possibilities”, because the restaurant chef, in the kitchen, was ready to prepare any item on the menu.

    Any item that she chose was a real possibility, an option that could have been realized if she chose it. And that is an actual fact, not a counterfactual. A conditional statement is only a counterfactual if the condition is actually impossible. For example, it was impossible for her to be served a Tyranosaurus steak for lunch. So, that would not have been a real possibility.

    So, when you suggest that “we can say there is only one ‘option’ in reality”, you’re actually saying, “hey, we could lie”.

    But, back to our neighborhood drug dealer, it is a bit more difficult to imagine the options he had to choose from. They are not as obvious as those on a restaurant menu. And it is quite possible that he was coerced by the neighborhood gang to participate in their distribution and sales, against his will. It is quite possible that the circumstances of his community, the gang violence, the demand for drugs, the lack of police protection, the inability of parents to protect him from these influences, and so on, led him to his current occupation.

    Compared to the woman sitting down to lunch, he may have had few options to choose from. But these are all real issues of specific causes having specific effects.

    If we turn our backs on these specific causes and their effects, and float back into your world where no one ever has any options, and the woman in the restaurant is indistinguishable from the drug dealer on the corner, and all you can offer us is “Well, we might fix these problems, or, we might not. We have no control over our actions, any more than the woman in the restaurant or the drug dealer, so I guess we’ll have to just wait and see what happens”.

    Even as you grant us the “possibility” of changing things by taking appropriate actions, you rob us of any self-control by your false figurative language.

    John: “Would it be correct to describe this “imposing its will” as escaping inevitability of outcomes?”

    Marvin: Of course not. The living organism’s biological will to survive, thrive, and reproduce is part of the overall scheme of causation. It is the biological level of causation. It is just another link in the causal chain, but the most relevant and meaningful causes of its behavior are internal to the object itself. And if it has intelligence, then its calculations as to what it should do next are also internal to the object itself. Calculation of outcomes is rational causation.

    Free will is when the mechanism of choosing what to do next is primarily located within the object itself, rather than some other object, such as that object with a gun in its hand.

    John: “I should also say that I reject your identification of “biology” as some kind of metaphysical entity distinct from “physics”, by which you imply that the first can “impose its will” on the second. It abuses the idea that any biological process is identical to the physics of which it is made.”

    Marvin: Well, “metaphysical” is a dirty word to me. The word that seems to be in style in many areas of science these days is “emergence”. It refers to behavior of the whole which cannot be found in its parts. We can disassemble a car into its parts, but we cannot drive the parts anywhere without reassembling them back into a car.

    The functions of a living organism, as the name suggests, require a specific structural organization. The functions of a cell require more than the physical materials of which it is made. They require a specific organization of that material. The functions of a squirrel require more than just a bunch of living cells, it requires specific types of cells, organized into organs, in turn organized and linked neurologically into a squirrel.

    We can predict what a bowling ball placed on a slope will do, using just physics. But we cannot predict what the squirrel will do without the life sciences and the social sciences.

    The essence of determinism is that any future event or future state can, at least in theory, be predicted with sufficient knowledge of prior states and prior events. Physics is inadequate to make predictions about the behavior of a squirrel without first evolving the concept of an object having both motivation and reasoning.

    So, I am preserving the essence of determinism by incorporating perfectly reliable biological and rational causation.

    I am essentially rescuing determinism, from its short-sighted proponents.

  20. lettersquash says:

    You probably don’t realize it, but you are speaking “figuratively”. If we were to spell out what you’re actually saying, it would be this: “under determinism, it is AS IF there is only one option in reality”. The problem is that “figurative” statements are always “literally” false.

    No, indeed, I am speaking literally. Good grief, has it taken this long to iron this mistake out? This is very helpful, thank you. Determinism says that there is just one outcome, literally, ontically, in the real world. It is figurative to say that there are real options looking into the future simply because you can identify “a menu”. Look, it’s very simple. If you are correct about that, and there are real options available, determinism is wrong, and entities (of whatever kind necessary) make actual real decisions between real options. This is not what determinism says. You can’t just make up your own version of it in which causes lead to inevitable effects and yet could have led to other ones. And to say that options literally existed means that the same causal situation in the world could have led to different effects. If all but one of those effects could not possibly ever have come about in actual fact, given the state of the universe, it is not reasonable to call their dismissal as options “speaking figuratively”. They simply (under determinism) do not exist as options. This is how the English language works. Stop abusing it.

    I can show how your little menu example is wrong on these grounds. You appear to distinguish true options (roughly those that appear on the menu, or presumably any the chef could rustle up if asked) as actual literal options from ones that are not literal options (a better word, incidentally, would be “ontic” – literal refers to things written):

    A conditional statement is only a counterfactual if the condition is actually impossible. For example, it was impossible for her to be served a Tyranosaurus steak for lunch. So, that would not have been a real possibility.

    But it would have been a real possibility (EDITED TO ADD: if I take your view of other real possibilities existing, but they do not – this was a difficult concept to get across). The historical facts required for a Tyranosaurus steak to be on the menu are ontologically no different from the historical facts that made these very scarce indeed, by which I mean that there is only one fundamental process of cause and effect that led to one condition rather than another. Certain causes led to certain effects. Determinism says that only one was possible, because the causal state at any time can only lead to one outcome, and this process is continuous into the past and the future, and there are no Tyranosaurs. Determinism does not distinguish between the causal facts impinging on a woman looking at a menu and the motion of galactic bodies. Had Laplace’s demon looked at the world (according to determinism, as you yourself describe it) before the extinction of the dinosaurs, it would have been able to predict their extinction and the miserable diminution of the menus on the planet in the 21st Century. It would, as we English speakers say, have HAD TO COME ABOUT. But it would also have been able to predict that the woman, given all relevant circumstances, would eventually evolve from little ground-dwelling mamals, go to that disreputable joint and order the Chef’s Salad. That HAD TO COME ABOUT too.

    You appear to suffer from a strong immunity to cognitive dissonance.

    Here again, the same error:

    Even as you grant us the “possibility” of changing things by taking appropriate actions, you rob us of any self-control by your false figurative language.

    The first part is a misrepresentation of the deterministic view, because of your imagining that it is some kind of “AS IF” figurative scheme. It does NOT grant us the possibility of changing things by taking appropriate action. You simply fail to understand this. I even went as far as to say that whatever action we take to “change things” in the case of the drug dealer will be deterministically caused, which means inevitable! So, via determinism, I am not robbing us of self-control, but necessarily denying it. You miss this every time. Let me try another way: determinism insists that there is only one inevitable future. If there is only one inevitable future, we only have one option we can actually choose at any time, and the others are what we call “illusions”.

    John: “Would it be correct to describe this “imposing its will” as escaping inevitability of outcomes?”

    Marvin: Of course not.

    And then you characterize biology “imposing its will” as having no effect whatever on inevitability of outcomes. If there is nought but one outcome, even with biology, how have you not “robbed us of control”?

    The essence of determinism is that any future event or future state can, at least in theory, be predicted with sufficient knowledge of prior states and prior events. Physics is inadequate to make predictions about the behavior of a squirrel without first evolving the concept of an object having both motivation and reasoning.

    These are two ideas, both true, from which you imagine you have made a dent in the free will debate, because you misunderstand their implications. As you said, determinism says that “in theory” future states would be predictable. It does not say anything about (indeed it specifically discounts) the need for theoretical structures or technologies for making such predictions possible. So you fool yourself with the idea that, since we now have biological or psychological terms by which to describe processes, somehow free will has been restored in a deterministic world view. But the thought experiment you’re relying on, and the formal definitions, don’t give a hoot about predictive capability: they conjecture that that is the ontological underlying reality of the world no matter what we know about it, using the thought experiment for illustrative purposes only, and they depend essentially and critically on their being just one single factual future condition, i.e. inevitability not evitability.

    So, I am preserving the essence of determinism by incorporating perfectly reliable biological and rational causation.

    I am essentially rescuing determinism, from its short-sighted proponents.

    No. You’re confusing the whole subject by thinking you’re a proponent while you sometimes choose to forget it. I strongly suspect that this is because, while you argue theoretically for inevitability, you enjoy the illusion of control, and don’t like to remember that your next act, and every subsequent one, is inevitable (if determinism is true). You forget it so readily that you still imagine that when I talk about our political options for dealing with crime, I’ve forgotten it, and I have to remind you yet again that I haven’t, and they are inevitable too. And then by arguing for it, you imagine I’ve “robbed” you of actual future options that really exist! It’s preposterous nonsense.

  21. John: “Determinism says that there is just one outcome, literally, ontically, in the real world.”

    Marvin: Correct! There will be precisely one and only one future. And it will be causally necessary from any prior point in eternity. That is not the issue between us.

    Our issue is this: What are the practical implications of this logical fact?

    You suggest that it means that (a) we don’t have “free will”, (b) there is only one “real possibility”, and (c) there is never more than one thing that we “can” do. I am saying that none of those things are logically implied by the fact of deterministic inevitability.

    Is it a matter of definitions? Yes. Pragmatism suggests that we examine how the concepts are used in real operations, and that will tell us what they really mean.

    The key operation here is Choosing. Choosing is a deterministic process where multiple options are input, comparatively evaluated by some meaningful criteria, and a single choice is output.

    One thing that we choose is what we “will” do. For example, “I will have a cheeseburger” is one choice and “I will have a Chef Salad” is another choice. Choosing selects an “I will”. The “I will” is our specific intention for the immediate or distant future.

    The chosen “I will” sets our intent upon realizing that specific option. In the restaurant, the woman carries out this intent by telling the waiter, “I will have the Chef Salad”. That is how one’s “will” operates, it marshals the physiology of the body to carry out the chosen intent.

    And that would be the “operational” definition of “will” – “a specific intention for the immediate or distant future that marshals a person’s actions to carry out that intent”.

    So, what about the “free” part? That too is related to the choosing operation. Was the person free to make this choice for themselves, or was this choice forced upon them by someone or something else? Was the “will” freely chosen or was it subjugated by coercion or some other undue influence, that effectively transferred control, of what the person would do, to someone or something else?

    The “operational” definition of “free will” is “those cases where a person decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion or other undue influence”. And this is the definition used in another meaningful operation, the operation of “assigning responsibility” or “holding accountable”.

    The “operational” definition of a “real possibility” or a “viable option” would be an imagined event or state that could be “actualized” or “realized” if that possibility or option were chosen.

    This too is centered in the choosing operation. It is logically required that choosing begins with at least two real possibilities or viable options.

    Now, CHOOSING HAPPENS. And it happens as a real event in the real world. In the case of our human species, we can even watch the brain activity during choosing using a functional MRI.

    So, not only does it happen, but we know by scientific evidence where it is happening and who is doing it.

    Those are facts. Determinism is also a logical fact. However, the logical fact of determinism cannot contradict the other facts that (1) choosing is really happening and (2) the result of the choice is human action, and (3) the result of this action causes changes in the real world.

    Therefore, it necessarily follows that human choosing is one of the reliable deterministic operations involved in bringing about the single inevitable future.

    We are causal agents. And we cause stuff for reasons that are our own. And these reasons never occurred to the Big Bang or any other prior point in eternity. Which makes us the most meaningful and relevant cause of that event we just caused.

    John: “If you are correct about that, and there are real options available, determinism is wrong, and entities (of whatever kind necessary) make actual real decisions between real options. This is not what determinism says.”

    Marvin: I disagree. Determinism asserts that every event or state is a causally necessary result of prior events and states. It does not (and cannot) assert that choosing never happens, because it does. Choosing is part of the deterministic mechanism by which the single inevitable future is caused.

    In summary, choosing logically requires that, at the outset, there must be more than one real possibility. Otherwise choosing can’t happen. And the single inevitable future requires that choosing happens.

  22. lettersquash says:

    Marvin, going through some of these issues with you has been useful. However, there will come a time, and apparently we’re rapidly approaching it, where our different formulations of the issue must stop with an agreement to disagree.

    What strikes me with your latest reply is how superbly, almost effortlessly, sentences can be constructed that appear to ratify the compatibilist position, but, with a modicum of thought, can be shown to depend on non-deterministic reinterpretations, because, as we agree, definitions make all the difference. I can, for example, agree perfectly with your last sentence, “And the single inevitable future requires that choosing happens”, given that humans exist and “choose”. I thought I had explained this subtle point well enough in the post itself, but perhaps I didn’t, that “choosing” can be understood from the “deterministic” point of view (as an automatic, mechanistic, inevitable process without free will being required), or, conversely, implying a freely willed real “choice” between equally (or rather probabilistically, “non-trivially”) available true options.

    You may know of a very old philosophical problem, the Problem of Future Contingents, first described by Aristotle something like this: If it is the case that a sea battle will not actually happen tomorrow, then the statement “a sea battle will not happen” (referring to that day) is true yesterday and today and at all times past, and “a sea battle will be fought” will always have been false, because a true or false statement can not change its truth value over time. This only seems to be a problem, of course, because of our intuitive feeling that facts are not fixed in the past, only in the moment when they either happen or don’t, but it abuses the firm propositions in logic that facts are time-independent, and statements are either true or false. The problem is that this is counter-intutive, because logically, if it is true – if it happens to be true – to say that the battle will not take place in the future, it is impossible for the battle to happen, because a true statement can not become untrue later.

    The solution Aristotle gave is that there are three truth values, not two – true, false, and contingent (i.e. undetermined). Aristotle, for all his failings, was a better thinker than you. He had to decide between impossible logic and a deterministic view. He chose the indeterministic view that facts are neither true or false until they become determined. You fail to make that choice.

    Ontologically, different futures are either possible or impossible: if possible, they are not yet determined, and, by definition, the world is not deterministic; if impossible, that leaves only the determined “choice” available.

    Another way to express this is to reverse your earlier incorrect criticism of my position when you said that I didn’t realise it, but I was speaking figuratively. Determinism makes the other alternatives to the actual future only figurative “choices”. If they are real, contingent choices, we have indeterminism, and the future is not decided until it is decided.

    I took a long time replying partly because I thought I should delve into the literature a bit more. I’m not a trained philosopher, and this is a relatively new subject for me. And two other things struck me. Reading a long, detailed history of determinism, and then another long, detailed history of compatibilism (to see if I could discover my mistake), it struck me how the latter has been an embarrassing portrayal of cognitive dissonance. The attempts of compatibilists can be characterized by the general method of conjecturing that some capacity of humans – given all manner of clever-sounding names and analysed in all sorts of psychological or logical ways – establishes that, despite determinism being true, we actually have free will.

    Incompatibilists demolish these arguments time and time again, through concise or long and complex logical disproofs. But the simple refutation is always staring us in the face: whatever capacity we may suggest makes the crucial difference, and whether or not it is reasonable to identify it as a real feature of our biology, determinism, by definition, says that this phenomenon must be an effect in the world that has prior causes that lead to its existence and all of its operation. We cannot avoid this by analysis of a phenomenon into discrete parts, since all those parts are events too, and each is subject to the same principle. We cannot avoid this by synthesis of some larger feature, like “intelligence” or “reasoning”, since determinism requires this to be an inevitable event or set of events all determined by prior causes.

    Compatibilists cite all manner of things: “dispositions”, social pressures upon us, reasoning, “first-” and “second-order volitions”, “power necessity”, “regulatory control” versus “guidance control”, “reactive attitudes”…on and on… apparently able to cut one part of their brain off from another, one in which the future is fixed and all such inventions are irrelevant sophistry, the other in which their inventions may or may not have relevance to psychology, but if they introduce real options the will chooses between freely, that is not determinism! I hesitate, because I am well-acquainted with the Dunning-Kruger effect and I am not an expert in this field by any means. On the other hand, academia may actually be this full of idiots.

    I note, however, that the latest developments in compatibilist theory are interesting in that they seem to be trying to re-establish the reality of moral responsibility. The still rather crazy thing is that this is a normative theory, and thus still easily accommodated within a purely deterministic history. This is precisely what Slattery is arguing, only with much more clarity, from the perfectly logical incompatibilist direction. We are evolved, social animals who have developed moral systems, and these expectations of each other moderate our behaviour, just as we are evolved thinking animals whose weighing of options moderate our behaviour. None of that is impossible to understand as determined behaviour (but I’m beginning to realise it may involve a lucky enlightenment into a new paradigm that some just don’t seem able to grokk). Unfortunately, the compatibilists are still twisting these into “free will” whilst desperately hoping to cling on to determinism, so, while the insights are potentially there that morality is important anyway, they are still deluded and undermine the potential insight that free will isn’t.

    Another thing that struck me was that you might imagine that your views are somehow groundbreaking (although you haven’t said that overtly), since you say you’re “rescuing determinism, from its short-sighted proponents”, but your compatibilist scheme is essentially several hundred years old and has been dismissed as illogical for as long, while compatibilists have “refined” their denials in all manner of ways since.

    For some reason, you and they don’t seem to recognise that incompatibilism is a position that is not undermined by the casual observation that women go into cafes and choose from a menu. You may take comfort (assuming you ever notice your mistake) from the fact that a whole raft of professional thinkers are equally deluded. After the salad is polished off, the woman can as readily have her cake and eat it as one can have determinism and real, possible options upon which to exercise their free will.

    Since you have made your view about as clear as it seems likely to become, and since the last installment was almost verbatim from your own blog, I may soon ask you to stop posting it here. I am committed to open discussion as long as there is genuine clarification being made and as long as I don’t feel too much misinformation is being promulgated through my pages. It has been genuinely useful, and I thank you for your input.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_future_contingents
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

  23. I would disagree with Aristotle. Causal necessity means that, if it is true that the sea battle will not occur tomorrow, then that has always been true from any prior point in eternity (and will continue to be true to any future point in eternity). Any “contingency” rests with our inability to predict future events, not with their reliable occurrence. (And I likewise presume that any “quantum indeterminism” is a problem with our limited ability to see, or to understand yet, what’s happening down there, and it is not a problem with causality itself).

    This “perfect” determinism actually makes my position easier. Nothing is ever “free of” reliable causation. And from this vantage point it is easy to see how ridiculous and irrational the concept of “freedom from reliable cause and effect” is.

    Therefore, we must accept the case that no use of the word “free” or “freedom” can ever rationally imply “freedom from reliable cause and effect”. And, if “free will” cannot possibly mean that, then we must ask ourselves, “Hmm, is there something else that it could possibly mean?”

    And it turns out that we commonly use “free will” to distinguish between the causally inevitable case where a person decides for himself what he will do, versus the causally inevitable case where someone forces him to act against his will. We need to handle these two cases differently, so the distinction is practical and useful. (The fact that both cases were causally inevitable clearly does not make a useful distinction here, in fact, with perfect determinism, the fact of causal inevitability NEVER makes a useful distinction, so it doesn’t come up).

    John: “if possible, they are not yet determined, and, by definition, the world is not deterministic; if impossible, that leaves only the determined “choice” available.”

    The world is most certainly deterministic. However, the deterministic fact of what “will” happen exists in a different context from the operational meaning of what “could” happen. No “possibility” exists in the real world. No “can’s” or “could’s” exist in the real world. They refer to unrealized potential futures. As soon as a possibility is actualized, it ceases to be referred to as a “possibility” and is designated as an “actuality” or simply something that “is”.

    It is an erroneous conflation to say that “If A will be chosen, then B could not have been chosen.” If A and B were both options that could potentially be actualized, then they were both “viable options” and “real” possibilities. The fact that A would be chosen does not contradict the other fact that A or B could have been chosen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.