Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps

FreeWill Along with cats and cowboy boots a long-running theme of Jerry Coyne’s website has been Jerry’s arguments against any form of “free will”. This usually leads to long comment-thread arguments between the incompatibilists (or “hard determinists”) and the compatibilists amongst Jerry’s readers.

I get the impression that sometimes the incompatibilists don’t properly understand a compatibilist view. They often accuse compatibilists of disliking determinism, of hankering after dualism, hoping that something will turn up that will overturn current science, or of just equivocating. Here I want to explain compatibilism to those determinists who take an incompatibilist stance (“hard determinism”). It is not aimed at libertarian dualists!

First, let’s be clear on the two stances. Compatibilism asks whether, given a deterministic universe, one can arrive at sensible and coherent meanings of terms such as “choice”, “freedom” and indeed “free will”. The compatibilist says yes; the incompatibilist says no, regarding such terms as too tainted by the dualistic idea that humans have a non-material “soul” that can make “choices” that are independent of the physical state of the brain and which thus violate the laws of physics.

Second, we should also be clear that the compatibilist is not disagreeing with the incompatibilist over any aspect of science. The compatibilist is only disagreeing over the meaning of concepts such as “choice” and “freedom”. Thus:

Step 1: Embrace determinism

A “choice” or “decision” that a brain makes is determined by the physical state of the brain at the time of the decision; and that physical state is determined by the physical state shortly prior to that; et cetera in a deterministic chain.

Having said that, we immediately need an aside. What about quantum indeterminacy? What about quantum effects coupled with deterministic chaos? Yes, in the long run, the system is most likely indeterministic. But, it is almost certain that our brain’s decisions are sufficiently deterministic that we can neglect quantum indeterminacy for current purposes. That’s because brains are hugely expensive in evolutionary terms (requiring huge amounts of energy to run, needing hugely extended childhood nurturing, and forcing big compromises in female anatomy to enable the swollen brain to pass through the birth canal). Thus they could only evolve if strongly selected for, and that can only happen if the genes that program for brains have a strong influence over the decisions that the brain ends up making. You don’t need a hugely extended brain of 1014 neural connections in order to do quantum dice throwing, and thus such brains would not have evolved if all they did was produce effectively random outputs.

Secondly, even if quantum indeterminacy were involved to some degree, that is irrelevant to anything we could regard as a “will”, since random dice throwing does not give you a “will”. I will thus presume that the system is sufficiently deterministic that, for current purposes, we can regard it as entirely deterministic.

Both compatibilists and incompatibilists make exactly the same Step 1 and have the same attitude to determinism.

Step 2: What is a “choice”?

Let us consider the following conversation, between a father and a child (and I’m willing to bet that even incompatibilists have conversations like this one in their everyday life):

Dad: Would you like an ice cream? You can choose which flavour.

Kid: Strawberry please!

Dad: Here you are.

Kid: on tasting the ice cream: But I don’t like strawberry. 😦

Dad: Well you chose it!

What is a “choice”? What is the kid doing when “choosing”? We (both compatibilists and incompatibilists) are agreed that the child will make a “choice” that is determined by the physical state of the system. That exact child in that exact situation and environment would always make that same choice and ask for the same flavour.

But, humans are so complicated and our environments so complicated that most of the time one human would not be able to guess which option another human being will select. Thus the father is simply asking the child to report their preference. Nothing in the father’s request that the child choose implies anything dualistic or contrary to the laws of physics.

While humans generally might not know another human’s preference, they may have a fairly good idea of the range of preferences humans tend to have and thus the range of choices they tend to make in the range of environments that humans tend to find themselves in.

Thus, we can define “choosing” as the deterministic selection of one option, from among the range of options that would be opted for by a typical range of human beings in a typical range of situations.

Thus the compatibilist agrees with the incompatibilist that a given human in a given situation will always make the same choice. But, what usually matters more is that a range of humans (all with somewhat different natures) in a typical range of situations will make a range of choices. After all, when interacting with another human, you treat them as one member of that range, since you don’t know enough about them to predict their exact choice.

Thus, if you’re tasked with ensuring that a whole class of children can choose their ice cream flavour, or that a whole plane-load of passengers can have their preference of meal option, what matters to you is the range of typical human choices. Nothing about stocking up with the right ratio of chicken versus beef meals has anything to do with dualism or with causation contrary to the laws of physics. That’s simply not what is relevant.

In making the choice the human brain is processing information and selecting an option with the aim of fulfilling a goal (e.g. selecting a flavour with the goal of enjoying eating the ice cream). This concept of choice (being deterministic) applies just as well to chess-playing computers and aircraft autopilots. The chess computer has a goal (winning the game) and processes information to arrive at the option that best furthers that aim. The aircraft autopilot, likewise, processes information and selects the option that best fulfills the aim of level flight, or whatever it is programmed to do.

Thus the term “choice” is one that we use about complex information-processing systems that make goal-oriented selections among options. (And, yes, both the goal and the information-processing towards that goal are determined by the prior physical state of the system.)

We use the concept “choice” where that information processing is sufficiently complex that the outcome would not be obvious to a third party. It is, in essence, a concept that accepts our ignorance of the full details of the low-level information processing that is going on. Thus we don’t use the term “choice” about simpler behaviours, such as a house brick falling under gravity, where we do understand the reasons for the outcome.

In the above conversation the father is exasperated that the child asked for strawberry but then didn’t like it. This would make no sense in a quantum-dice-throwing scenario, since then there would be no reason to expect the randomly-arrived-at choice to be one that the child actually likes. It does make sense under determinism, since one would expect information from past tastings to have influenced the decision. A young, inexperienced and partially-trained neural network will, however, make this sort of error. The parent is thus exasperated in the same way they might be with a clumsy child.

How would the incompatibilist react to the above account? They might react by declaring that such a conception of “choice” is invalid, and that the word should only be used for dualistic un-caused choices that are unrelated to the physical system, and so might that want to retire the word “choice” from the language.

Why would the father be exasperated? Afterall, to the incompatibilist the child had no “choice” and was only doing what the laws of physics dictated that the child do, so why get annoyed? Of course the father might retort that he also had no choice other than to get exasperated!

My suggestion is that, after the incompatibilist has purged the language of all the words tainted with dualism, they would then have to invent a new set of concepts, complete with a new set of words, along the lines of the above compatibilist account. Afterall, those concepts are unavoidable in social interactions.

Step 3: Understanding “freedom”

To an incompatibilist the word “free” in the term “free will” can only mean that the will is divorced from physical reality, and that what the will wants is not the product of the physical system.

Yet, that is not how the word is used in every other context in the English language. In most contexts, the term “free” does not mean that the desire arises independently of physics, it denotes an absence of external constraints that prevent someone acting on their desires. Thus, for example, “free speech” is not about dualism, it’s about social control by others.

Here are some common usages: Free speech; free press; freedom of religion; free style; free load; free radical; freed from jail; free lunch; free fall; free agent; free to leave; freed from slavery; free man; set the birds free; kick your legs free; free form.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “free” as meaning: “Able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another”. It is only in the specific case of the phrase “free will”, out of line with most other usages in English, that “freedom” is taken to be about dualism and the non-operation of the laws of physics. Indeed, if I describe an object as “in free fall”, the whole point is that it is obeying the laws of physics.

Thus, the concept “freedom” has a sensible and coherent meaning in a deterministic world. That meaning is used commonly in everyday life, and is the one adopted by compatibilism.

Step 4: Understanding “moral” responsibility

If a car breaks down we can say that a faulty spark plug is “responsible” for the failure. But obviously the spark plug is not “morally responsible”. To an incompatibilist, the term “morality” is ceded to the religious. It is taken to refer to acts by an immaterial soul that are judged against a standard of absolute rightness or wrongness.

The compatibilist agrees with the incompatibilist in rejecting the religious and dualistic conception of morals. However, as with the above terms “choice” and “freedom”, the compatibilist regards “morals” as about the social interactions of humans. At root, moral judgements are feelings that we have about how humans treat each other. Such feelings help determine how we ourselves act, and by having such feelings we can also influence how others act.

The difference between a spark plug and a fellow human is that no amount of disapproval will affect the spark plug, whereas expressing disapproval will affect another human. Thus “moral” responsibility means susceptible-to-social-opprobrium responsibility. By establishing expectations, rules and punishments we encourage behaviour we like and deter behaviour we deplore.

The incompatibilist will object that, if someone commits a crime despite the deterrence, then they had no “choice”, since the behaviour was determined. True, replies the compatibilist, but given a range of different humans in a range of similar situations, many of them would have been deterred. We hold someone “morally” responsible if many other humans in similar situations would have been deterred and thus would not have committed the crime.

We would, though, not hold someone “morally” responsible if the bad acts were the result of a brain tumour, since social opprobrium would have no effect on the brain tumour. Thus morality is a pragmatic concept about social interactions, and about attempts to influence each others’ behaviour.

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The incompatibilist will object that this is a very different concept from the religious and dualistic one, to which the compatibilist agrees entirely, but states that this compatibilist conception of “moral responsibility” is coherent and sensible, and is a necessary part of human society.

Step 5: Interpreting “free will”

As the compatibilist sees it, notions such as “choice”, “freedom” and “morality” are all about human social interactions, and have coherent and sensible meanings in a deterministic world. Even if we end up using different words for these notions, the concepts themselves are required to understand and talk about human society.

Through history, though, most humans have been religious and dualist. When interpreting society they have tended to produce a commentary in terms of dualistic notions such as a “soul” and absolute conceptions of morality. Thus the term “free will” is most commonly interpreted as the action of a soul that acts independently of material. The incompatibilist rightly rejects such notions, and also regards the term “free will” itself as so tainted by dualistic notions that it is best rejected along with dualism. The incompatibilist may also regard words such as “choice” and “moral” as similarly tainted, and might then want to embark on a wholesale re-writing of the language.

The compatibilist is just as clear in rejecting dualism, but only rejects the dualistic commentary about terms such as “choice” and “moral”. Rather than re-writing the language, the compatibilist prefers to re-interpret the relevant words in a manner compatible with a deterministic world. An analogy is with the word “life”, which was not abandoned when science moved from a vitalistic to a materialist conception of life.

While the dualistic interpretation of “free will” is traditional, the compatibilist interpretation also has a long history. Further, that meaning is common in every day life: “Did you sign this contract of your own free will, or were you coerced?”. That question is not about dualism, it is about pressure from other humans, in the same way that “free speech” is not about dualism, it’s about social restrictions.

Einstein paraphrased Schopenhauer’s compatibilism as “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”, and compatibilist interpretations have been common back to Hume and before.

Jerry Coyne’s main complaint about compatibilism is that retaining the term “free will” can give people the impression that dualism is tenable after all. Perhaps, though I’ve not seen any evidence saying it is easier to convert a dualist to incompatibilism rather than compatibilism.

In my view, incompatibilists would anyhow be more-or-less forced to adopt compatibilist conceptions of human social interactions, in order to operate in the everyday world, even if they ultimately choose to use different language. While I’m not wedded to the particular phrase “free will”, the terms “choice” and “freedom” and “moral” are needed in everyday life, and replacing them with different words would be way too much trouble.

There is little substantive difference between the compatibilists and the incompatibilists, and certainly there is no difference over the science or over determinism. In many ways incompatibilism is simply a version of compatibilism that is so busy still fighting the dualists (a laudable enterprise) that it hasn’t yet worked out what it would do when it wins. If it weren’t for the spectre of dualism, incompatibilists would realise that they are actually compatibilists, all bar the shouting and some semantics.

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28 thoughts on “Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps

  1. Ron Murphy

    “and I’m willing to bet that even incompatibilists have conversations like this one in their everyday life”

    Of course they (we) do. We suffer the illusion of free will as much as anyone and we’re as accustomed to millennia of language that has developed around that illusion.

    “What is a “choice”? What is the kid doing when “choosing”?”

    In a deterministic sense there is no such thing. If we allow that we can talk in terms of ‘time’ then there are outcomes and their precursors. There is no choice. That’s the nature of determinism: the outcome is determined. If you want to treat ‘time’ as merely another dimension then (in a sense we find very difficult to articulate) all space-time events are ‘simultaneous’ and even determinism is on rocky ground.

    But, in the language of time where two billiard balls are heading for a collision we can use terms like ‘choice’. If two balls, A and B, are such that A is stationary and B is in motion and hits A, then in the simplistic language of causal determinism we say “A caused B to move”, but in more cautious terms we say “A and B had mutually equal effects on each other in one changing the other’s momentum – though the specific final velocities remain different.” But we could also say, “When moving, B hit stationary A …” [note we do not say here ‘when A hit B’] “… B ‘chose’ to move and A ‘chose’ to change direction and velocity in response.”

    So, summarising, here we have three perspectives:

    1) Human perspective – Free will and choice – The notion of choice and the feeling that humans have that they have free will in making those choices. Dualism is the core of this perspective, but it relies on ‘minds’ having some control over human brains and other material objects. In dualism it isn’t explained how these minds exert a will that is free of physical causes.

    2) Determinism – Using time to express how prior events in time cause later events in time through the interaction of, for want of a deeper understanding, particles. There is no choice, free will, or any possibility of change in the sense of alternative possibilities. The very concept of determinism in a material universe does not allow billiard balls to make their own mind up about how they interact, and it does does not allow a human brain to make its own mind up. The notions expressed in (1) are illusory under this deterministic perspective.

    3) Simultaneous space-time – All events just ‘are’ and there is no separate time over which one thing determines another. All events are co-related in some sense, and do not happen one after the other. So, the time element of causation that has prior events causing later events is not applicable, and even determinism of (2) is illusory under this perspective. And (1) is illusory too.

    So, it boils down to which perspective one is using when addressing some subject of conversation. It is convenient to talk in terms of (1), but it is wrong to conflate (1) and (2).

    Why can’t we have it that (1) and (2) are compatible, as compatibilists would have it? First, it doesn’t make sense. Where has the determinism gone when a choice is made that has any meaning that is significant to us? What ‘determines’ the outcome of a choice? Second, compatibilists (e.g. Dennett) in making their case deny that free will is an illusion.

    So (1) and (2) are not compatible. But that does not stop us using the language of (1). And in fact it’s very difficult to avoid the language of (1).

    But it’s also very difficult to avoid the perceptions of many optical illusions, while at the same time intellectually acknowledging that what we perceive is irrational, an error of perception. This is a perfectly rational position to take with regard to optical illusions: we can say quite clearly that perceptually the Necker cube is changing direction while acknowledging that in reality it is not.

    So it is just as rational to say that (1) is how we feel the world is, but that if (2) is the case then it is a perceptual error – free will is an illusion.

    The significant point in this respect is that we really do feel like our free will is dualist free will. We cannot feel the deterministic operation of our brains, so it really does feel as though our ‘decisions’, our ‘choices’, come free of physical cause. We feel like we have dualist free will. We don’t feel like we have compatibilist free will because we cannot feel the causal connection between thoughts, decisions, and the biology causing them.

    “We (both compatibilists and incompatibilists) are agreed that the child will make a “choice” that is determined by the physical state of the system. That exact child in that exact situation and environment would always make that same choice and ask for the same flavour.”

    Then in what sense was it a choice?

    “Nothing in the father’s request that the child choose implies anything dualistic or contrary to the laws of physics.”

    Yes it does. Of course it does. “Dad: Would you like an ice cream? You can choose which flavour.” He is telling his child that he can make a choice that you just said he cannot, because “That exact child in that exact situation and environment would always make that same choice and ask for the same flavour.”

    “While humans generally might not know another human’s preference, they may have a fairly good idea of the range of preferences humans tend to have and thus the range of choices they tend to make in the range of environments that humans tend to find themselves in.”

    From a deterministic perspective all you are saying here is that one human brain A is not locally caused to be tuned to the state of another brain B such that A can be caused to utter sound that is consistent with a subsequent output from brain B. Under determinism it could be the case that brain A ‘knows’ that brain B has historically had the outcome of uttering “Strawberry”, and so brain A is caused to ‘predict’ brain B will say “Strawberry”. But the interaction of billiard balls can vary wildly for minute changes to priors, and so human brains ‘predict’ what other brain outcomes will be with even less reliability.

    “Thus the compatibilist agrees with the incompatibilist that a given human in a given situation will always make the same choice.”

    In a deterministic universe there is no such ‘always’, unless some outside cause can re-run the universe – and (neglecting quantum stuff) such a re-run will always have the same outcome at the same point. If you think of the universe as a simulation then it could be re-run if it exists within the scope of some larger system that can set-up the simulation identically. But this requires some speculative unknown externalities to the universe. Within what we presume to be a single run, this universe always has states that as far as we can tell are unique. There may be local similarities, but that’s not the same. Any local similarity between states may have sufficient difference to make an outcome unpredictable. The whole ‘could have done otherwise’, as used by some compatibilists, does not make sense.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Ron,
      Thanks for the extensive replies! First, I do not intuitively think of myself as making dualist free-will decisions. No, really, I don’t! I think of myself as a deterministic neural network (I agree that most people do think of themselves as making dualistic free-will decisions, but I’ve trained myself not to).

      Second, as I see it, compatibilism is *not* about trying to reconcile determinism with that illusion of dualism. Really, it isn’t! Thus, your analysis, that I’m trying to reconcile your (2) and your (1), is not how I see it.

      Third, your responses give extensive accounts of determinism. I agree with you entirely on everything you’ve said about that. Compatibilism is not about disagreeing with you over determinism.

      Then in what sense was it a choice?

      It is a choice in the sense that, in your second comment, you declare to be irrelevant. Thus I’ll reply to that there.

      But, for this reply:

      Of course they (we) do [have conversations such as the one in the post]. We suffer the illusion of free will as much as anyone and we’re as accustomed to millennia of language that has developed around that illusion.

      Suppose you (and everyone) cured yourself of the illusion of dualism. And suppose you could wave a wand and re-write the language in line with your deterministic understanding. How would the conversation then go?

      That is the key to this whole issue. Such interactions would still take place. What would people then say? What would they then mean? Could you give a suggestion replacement conversation?

    2. Darren Pellichino

      This whole discussion reminds me of the Byzantine Empire arguing over whether Christ was a Man or whether he was not a Man at all.

      1. You cannot change the course of our galaxy, Sun, Planet, Continent ect…those are determined by outside forces.
      2. Time is not a constant set determined line because of the presence of randomness.
      3. You can react in any way you desire. Emotional responses and past brain states may put pictures in your head but at any moment,of your choice (or by a random roll of a die if you wanted), you can go bananas and run in dumb ass circles till you puke.

      Here is what I have learned about the mind and it’s affect on your actions…..At 17 till 22 I was basically in a hospital bed with cancer which gave me time to examine my thoughts and compare them to years of past experiences. I traced all of my worst actions back to these self defeating, self loathing concepts that were firmly planted in my subconscious. I also traced many other actions I did not want to be part of me back to this subconscious or unconscious self. I have eradicated all remnants of those seeds and am very good at finding and removing them now.

      Your reaction to the outside is the first action, it is emotional and not under your control. From that point on you can chose to allow the emotion to release all the chemical tonic’s it wants and still ignore the train of action the emotion is geared for or allow the emotions to guide you along. That’s not the subconscious though…the subconscious, for me, was little whispered suggestions against the value of holding to a strict code of ethics. Like a little effing devil on my shoulder. It is caged now along with all of my primal emotions, which is handy in real life. *(the cage is under immense pressure)* So on a few occasions opening it has at most, saved my life, or at least made a deep impression on many people. I guess I believe we have a reactive free will.

  2. Ron Murphy

    “But, what usually matters more is that a range of humans (all with somewhat different natures) in a typical range of situations will make a range of choices.”

    I don’t think this has any bearing of the subject whatsoever. In what sense does it matter to the free will debate?

    “Afterall, when interacting with another human, you treat them as one member of that range, since you don’t know enough about them to predict their exact choice.”

    Now you’re conflating epistemic limitation on a local human scale with the problem of determinism and free will. Even objects that you would say do not have free will, such as billiard balls, are also indeterminate to us to some degree. You’re effectively saying that free will amounts not to choice but simply to greater epistemic error about deterministic events, because brains are more complex than billiard balls. Deepak Chopra might like this idea since he could claim that the cosmos is more complex than individual brains (since it contains brains and much more) and so the cosmos has a massive intellect with even more free will. He could also use this move of yours to argue that rocks have some degree of free will, since though not as complex as humans they are complex enough.

    “Thus, if you’re tasked with ensuring that a whole class of children can choose their ice cream flavour, or that a whole plane-load of passengers can have their preference of meal option, what matters to you is the range of typical human choices.”

    No. In a deterministic universe you are merely declaring your epistemic inability to predict the determined outcomes. You may want to call it choice, but then an poor billards player must declare billiard balls have free will because he lacks the control to give him epistemic confidence in his playing outcomes.

    “Nothing about stocking up with the right ratio of chicken to beef meals has anything to do with dualism or with causation contrary to the laws of physics. That simply isn’t what’s relevant.”

    But you have not shown it has anything to do with free will, which is the significant point. As an incompatibilist I have no problem saying that not only did the stocking of food have epistemic limitations but that it also wasn’t a free will matter but a determined one. The choice of what to stock is no more a free will choice than the choice of each child as to have beef or chicken. You’re moving the goal posts from the children to the kitchen staff. And still not explaining free will.

    “In making the choice the human brain is processing information and selecting an option with the aim of fulfilling a goal”

    From the human perspective (1), but not from the deterministic perspective (2). You’re conflating them. From a deterministic perspective the human brain isn’t doing any processing as we humans understand it, but merely reacting, at each idea, each region, each neuron, each molecule, each atom, as it must. And if we take perspective (3), then not even that.

    “This concept of choice (being deterministic) applies just as well to chess-playing computers and aircraft autopilots.”

    Only if you conflate the notions of human perception and determinism. In fact this example shows how you are conflating them because you are not allowing computers free will, or if you are then you are being inconsistent. Any computer can be implemented with marbles and mechanical gates. I implemented basic computer logical gates using marbles and tracks as a demonstration. The reason we don’t do it is because it isn’t efficient enough. Silicon chips work better than valves, that work better than mechanical computing engines – but they are not different in principle. And nor is a brain – though some people are confused about what computation means.

    “Thus the term “choice” is one that we use about complex information-processing systems that make goal-oriented selections among options.”

    Yes, but this is another use of the term ‘choice’ (that I happily use in software development) because it is a semantic means of expressing our inability to determine (epistemically) the outputs for all inputs. But for any specific set of inputs (that can include the state of internal memory), and neglecting hardware variability, noise, and other extraneous inputs, the outcome will be ‘determined’ – no ‘choice’ is made. The term ‘choice’ is used only for our convenience.

    “We use the concept “choice” where that information processing is sufficiently complex that the outcome would not be obvious to a third party, and is, in essence, a concept that accepts our ignorance of the full details of the low-level information processing that is going on.”

    We only do that because in those circumstances it’s more convenient than talking in entirely deterministic terms. In the engineering context it doesn’t matter that we mix our concepts, or indulge in the humanistic (1) concept of choice and free will. It is quite common to speak as if computers are agents without really making the mistake of believing they are.

    But when we’re having a discussion about human brains, in the context of a world where religion dominates, where dualist minds and souls are really important politically, then we need to get down and dirty and speak of determinism as if we mean it. It’s important to tell theists that their idea of a free will of a soul or mind is an illusion.

    “How would the incompatibilist react to the above account? They might react by declaring that such a conception of “choice” is invalid, and that the word should only be used for dualistic un-caused choices that are unrelated to the physical system, and so might that want to retire the word “choice” from the language.”

    Yes, that’s precisely what we should do in the context of talking about neuroscience, physics, chemistry in relation to brains, or the alternative dualist persepctive of minds and souls.

    “Why would the father be exasperated? Afterall, to the incompatibilist the child had no “choice” and was only doing what the laws of physics dictated that the child do, so why get annoyed? Of course the father might retort that he also had no choice other than to get exasperated!”

    Yes, if he wanted to think in terms of (2) while engaging a child in (1). But switching language when appropriate isn’t a problem. Biologists don’t often need to understand the details of particle physics – and I’m sure many get along just fine with a minimal notion of ions and electrons. When necessary we can switch perspectives.

    In every day use the human ‘free will’ perspective of choosing ice cream is fine – and it may be evolutionarily inevitable that we think that way. It might also be evolutionarily natural to respond with disgust to human feces and blood, but many health and sanitation workers overcome that.

    Why can’t compatibilists see the utility of dualist free will in the context of dealing with theists and philosophers that deny determinism and declare the non-physical to be the way the world is?

    “My suggestion is that, after the incompatibilist has purged the language of all the words tainted with dualism, they would then have to invent a new set of concepts, complete with a new set of words, along the lines of the above compatibilist account. Afterall, those concepts are unavoidable in social interactions.”

    Who is suggesting we purge the language? Straw man! Never heard of it.

    We adapt the language to the context. I’m sure we can find many every day terms that are not consistent with some aspects of science, but which we don;t purge from the language. Instead we are just particular about what language we allow in certain contexts. The incompatibilist is only concerned with free will language in the context of the philosophy and science of the human brain.

    Just as many computer scientists use anthropomorphic language with regard to computers or software, so you’ll get some incompatibilists saying things like “You should be an incompatibilists”, as if you had a choice. What is really meant, in deterministic terms (2) is that brain A has uttered some icnompatibilist statements and that brain expects brain B to be so altered by them that brain B is caused to express similar statements instead of the compatibilists ones it had been stateing.

    Coel, you really should become an incompatibilist.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Ron,

      I don’t think this has any bearing of the subject whatsoever. In what sense does it matter to the free will debate?

      It has bearing because it is how compatibilists see the concept of “choice”.

      But you have not shown it has anything to do with free will, which is the significant point.

      Clearly, it does not having anything to do with dualist free will, or free-will-as-incompatibilists-define-it. However, more or less by definition, it does have lots to do with “choice” and “free will” as compatibilists conceive of those terms.

      From a deterministic perspective the human brain isn’t doing any processing as we humans understand it, but merely reacting, at each idea, each region, each neuron, each molecule, each atom, as it must.

      But “merely reacting … as it must” is indeed “processing as we humans understand it”. If you asked a human how a computer was processing information, that deterministic operation is how they would understand it.

      Yes, but this is another use of the term ‘choice’ (that I happily use in software development) …

      OK, good. You accept that there is a usage of the term `choice’ that is sensible, and which you yourself actually use. That usage is what the compatibilist regards as the primary meaning of the term, indeed the only sensible meaning of it.

      You, however, take the primary meaning to refer to something that is incoherent, non-sensible and non-existent. Isn’t that rather peculiar?

      The term ‘choice’ is used only for our convenience. … We only do that because in those circumstances it’s more convenient than talking in entirely deterministic terms.

      Yes, we adopt language to be useful. Now all you need to do is *interpret* the word in a deterministic sense, in addition to merely *using* the word in a deterministic context, and we’d be close to agreement.

      It is quite common to speak as if computers are agents without really making the mistake of believing they are.

      Are humans agents? Aren’t (deterministic) computers agents in exactly the same way that (deterministic) humans are? Or, is agency another concept that you want to declare false?

      Who is suggesting we purge the language? Straw man! Never heard of it.

      Well, if you’re not going to purge the language, then you are (from your point of view) continually using metaphorical language that you regard as misleading. Isn’t that a bad way of convincing dualists? Indeed, aren’t you doing exactly what you see as wrong with compatibilism?

  3. Ron Murphy

    3 Understanding Freedom

    “To an incompatibilist the word “free” in the term “free will” can only mean that the will is divorced from physical reality”

    Yes. This is what ‘free will’ does mean.

    “Yet, that is not how the word is used in every other context in the English language.”

    That’s because ‘free’ isn’t applied to ‘will’ in some of those other contexts.

    “it denotes an absence of external constraints that prevent someone acting on their desires. Thus, for example, “free speech” is not about dualism, it’s about social control by others. ”

    But that’s because ‘free speech’ is a term that has developed already in a context of ‘free will’. It is a term used that assumes a mind has the free will to speak is that mind ‘chooses’ AND is further more not constrained by yet other forces.

    Under determinism we don’t have free will or free speech. They are both illusions, the latter a consequence of the former, plus the notion of a lack of social constraint on speech.

    “Free speech; free press; freedom of religion; free style; free load;”

    All these require free will. They only apply in the context of free will.

    “free radical; freed from jail;” – These terms relate only to degrees of freedom – how constrained some object is with regard to others.

    It is quite clear that dualist philosophers and theists are not confused by the different use of ‘free’ when applied to these terms and when applied to the will. They very specifically do mean something that contravenes determinism.

    In fact there are two forms of incompatibilists that have the same opinions on the nature of the problem, but differ in what takes precedence.

    Dualist incpompatibilists insist the mind or the soul are distinct and free of physical cause, and deny that determinism applies in every respect – they admit only that it applies to material objects.

    Determinist incompatibilists insist that determinism applies, mainly because it’s our main perspective on material reality and we have no additional non-material reality in evidence, and as such we do not have minds with wills that can act independent of physical world. And therefore we conclude that this very strong feelng we have of having free will must be a mental illusion.

    Incompatibilism is straight forward, and there’s no need for all these fudges of trying to explain choice.

    “Thus, the concept “freedom” has a sensible and coherent meaning in a deterministic world. ”

    Yes, degrees of freedom, with regard to the extent to which one set of events is more or less contributing to other events. So, a pendulum has one degree of freedom; an aircraft has six overall, but many micro degrees of freedom in its internal mechanisms. A human is a deterministic automaton that has many more degrees of freedom: some large scale mechanistic ones due to its joints, muscles, ligaments, etc., but also many more micro internal degrees of freedom of how its brain components interact internally and to external stimuli, so that it in turn causes the larger system to act. But for any given compound set of inputs there is no ‘choice’ anywhere, in deterministic terms (2), only the illusion of choice (1).

    I find you’re mixing your perspectives. While an incompatibilists may use free will language (1) to describe his deterministic world view (2), you are actually conflating (1) and (2) through some very dodgy moves.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Ron,

      Under determinism we don’t have free will or free speech. [or free press or freedom of religion]

      Let’s think about this in practical terms. What are you saying, that we should not concern ourselves with a free press or freedom speech and not care if such laws are repealed?

      Or, do you think, that as a matter of how to run society, it should be the case that if someone wants to criticise the government then they should be able to publish a newspaper saying so?

      If the latter, then you’re agreeing that we *need* such concepts. So let’s interpret them in a compaitbilist way. Afterall, the world is indeed deterministic!

      you are actually conflating (1) and (2) through some very dodgy moves.

      No I’m not! Can we ditch (1) entirely? I’m a deterministic machine! I’m a deterministic automaton! Having settled that, can we get back to discussing human social interactions? Is free speech and a free press a good thing for society?

  4. Roo Bookaroo

    There’s something very artificial in all this debate about “free will”, especially as redigested by Jerry Coyne. Coyne is by training, profession, and experience a biologist.
    In his late age, he’s become tired of doing science and experiments, and finds switching to questions of morality and anti-religious activism more interesting. And certainly easier to write about, especially when it is in a blog where he is trying to get a maximum of clicks in the hope of becoming No. 1 popular blog on WordPress.

    The concept of “free will” is ambiguous in the sense that the adjective “free” is ambiguous. Coel does an excellent job at reducing this concept to the experience of “will”, and showing that at bottom “will” itself is a label for the brain function of “choice”, which is essentially a function of the human brain in a social context.
    Daniel Kahneman, who has spent his life studying the expressions of the working of the human brain never mentions “free will” as a real experience of the brain. “Will” is not even an object of study or experimentation, but is replaced by the experience and the study of “choice”.
    And again, the mention of “everyday life” when referring to the action of the brain is superfluous, as for the brain there’s no other life.

    The debate about “free will” is burdened by its past, in the sense that it was not originated in empirical psychology, but in theology, more exactly in Christian theology.

    The big puzzle of Christian theology was about the reluctance of human souls to follow the road to salvation. Humans were created by God, and their souls injected in their material body by God. Why is it then that such humans do not spontaneously adopt a lifestyle that will guarantee their salvation in the overall godly program? Why do men not respond immediately to the Commandments laid out by Christian dogma as the sure road to getting saved, but need to be influenced by the church and its priests, whose task is to exhort them and motivate them?
    Paradoxically, God’s Commandments, laid out by God, and promoted by Christianity, do NOT immediately, automatically, appeal to men, who tend to ignore them and err, risking missing on salvation. This remains the big mystery of Christian theology. The “explanation” of this paradox of men, created by god, but unwilling to obey his programmed plan of salvation was given by introducing the theological doctrine of men’s “free will”. Men err because of their “free will”.
    Then the challenge for religious leaders, as for any new ideology to gain traction, is how to convince ordinary mortals to believe in the strange new moralistic Commandments proclaimed by their leaders and Church as emanating from God, and to follow their leaders’ exhortations — from Moses to the popes of the Catholic Church, to the street preachers and Sunday service sermons.

    The most direct method, well described by Matthew in his gospel, is through inspiring FEAR — the fear of not being “saved”. Saved from what? — mostly saved from the risk of ending up in hell. The FEAR OF HELL, that Matthew delights in reminding his leaders at every turn, is the psychological tool that Christianity will use to win over the unconvinced mortal and overcome the obstacle of his “free will”. Fear the Last Judgment when the “free-willers” will be condemned to Hell in perpetuity. “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:30). Matthew has a sadistic delight in using this phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that he repeats at the first opportunity. This fear should straighten out the rebels acting on their “free will”.

    To extend this theological concept of “free will” to the functioning of the human brain as examined by empirical psychology, is the effect of the Christian indoctrination of European and American masses. “Free will” is nothing more than a residue of Christian school teaching. It never is the object of study and experimentation of the ways the functions of the working brain are expressed, not just in “everyday life” but in life as such.

    Debating about “free will” is a scholastic exercise left over by centuries of Christian theological sermons and writings, which fascinates somebody like Jerry Coyne, and is explained (“determined”?) by his background as a lifelong experimental biologist who, in advancing age, is now bored with staying in the lab or the classroom teaching undergraduates, and prefers to build an image as a public pundit of morality and activism.

    Neither “free will” nor the debate about it have any place in modern empirical psychology, and is, at best an entertainment for aging scientists like Jerry Coyne and his devotees, and, at worst, a total waste of time.

    Reply
  5. Ron Murphy

    Coel,

    “Suppose you (and everyone) cured yourself of the illusion of dualism. And suppose you could wave a wand and re-write the language in line with your deterministic understanding. How would the conversation then go? That is the key to this whole issue.”

    I don’t think there’s the need to ‘cure’ myself of the illusion of dualism, any more than I feel the need to cure myself of the perception of a Necker cube appearing to change direction, or to cure myself of the impression of sunrises and sunsets. For the Necker cube and sunsets I can hold both concepts in my head concurrently and focus on the appropriate illusion or reality as the need arises.

    I don’t want to re-write the language in every day use, no more than I waant to remove ‘sunset’ as an illusion experience or as a linguistic label for the illusuion I experience.

    But when speaking of planetary systems, orbits and other such stuff I have no need for the sunset illusion and think in terms of earth’s rotation with respect to the sun.

    Similarly when speaking about neuroscience, evolution and philosophy of mind I find it better to switch to deterministic language. Whether I decide to use the terms ‘choice’ is quite separate from using ‘free will’. The term ‘choice’ can be used in a mechanistic context my (2), conveniently: when talking about a computer system with multiple inputs over time, where each set of inputs results in a different outcome, I can use the language of ‘choice’ in conditional statements of the program.

    Take a look at this video. This is a computational machine that makes ‘choices’. But what do we mean by that?

    We mean that different inputs follow different paths and result in a different outcome. Each ‘gate’ we say is making a ‘choice’. But as each ball approaches a gate the gate state has been determined by prior events, and the actual passage of a ball is determined. There is no choice.

    Now imagine we covered the whole contraption with a cover, and didn’t give you a clue about what was happening beneath, and passed several balls through the machine, and change the output so the balls appeared in different places rather than the catch-all at the bottom. You would be tempted to say the machine is making choices. And yet examine any part of the machine and there is no choice taking place.

    The brain does all this on a grander scale, but as determinists I suspect you and I have the same idea about the deterministic nature of the small scale (ignoring quantum stuff and noise).

    We not have a problem using deterministic language with computers and other mechanisms, and so we can use the same language for the brain’s operations. But we also don’t have a problem switching to anthropomorphic language of agency with mechanisms, because it is sometimes cconvenient. When engineers use the language of agency as a metaphor when talking about machines we understand that we are not attributing any sort of ‘free will’ to the machines.

    But there are times we have to be careful. And ‘The Selfish Gene’ is one example where that has caused confusion – including sometimes a very naive and literal interpretation of the selfishness of agency.

    And another is when engaing with the majority of humans: theists and non-theists that believe in some dualistic form of ‘free will’. I thnk it really important to say that free will is an illusion in that context. We can say free will is an illusion, and still use terms like ‘choice’ as mechanistic points of determination of alternative paths – as in the case of balls approaching in the video, or electrons and electronic gates in computers.

    I think the insistance of sticking with free will in a determinist context causes confusion – for compatibilists too. In this post I break down how Dennett gets confused: Dennett on sunsets.

    I’m not sure what difficulty you imagine there is with language here. I find the greatest confusion in insisting on using ‘free will’ in a deterministic context when we know that most people do not use it in that sense. We already have the language for making the distinction clear: we feel we have free will, but there is no actual free will, so the feeling of having free will is an illusion.

    “First, I do not intuitively think of myself as making dualist free-will decisions. No, really, I don’t! I think of myself as a deterministic neural network (I agree that most people do think of themselves as making dualistic free-will decisions, but I’ve trained myself not to).”

    I appreciate that this is the case for you. And it is for me when contemplating the matter. But when I’m not contemplating it and my wife asks if I’d like strawberry of vanilla ice cream my decision seems to appear from nowhere. I might be able to attribute some ‘feeling’ to it, but it’s not a ‘neural’ feeling.

    Even when I contemplate some more complex decision, say about installing solar panels on my house, I gather data and seem to come to some decision as if I’m persuaded by the data, but thedetail of what happens in my head at the time I become persuaded one way or another is not identifiable.

    Now without my background in science and technology and an interest in neuroscience, evolution, philosophy, I’d be at a total loss as to where the decision came from; and if I were religious I’d no doubt be convinced that it was my mind making a free willed decision – still based on the assessment of data, yet freely willed by an unconnected mind.

    We are in direct opposition to people to see free will in this latter context. It’s difficult getting across to them that we are all deterministic machines and that free will is an illusion. It’s even more difficult getting across to them that we are machines that still have free will, because they can’t help but think of free will on their own terms.

    When I’ve had discussions with theists they are most resistant to the mechnistic automata model of humans, but I find that a very clear point upon which to debate. I can use the analogy of optical illusions. So, here is an example of how I use language to explain the deterministic position:

    And optical illusion is not always a trick of optics. Some times it is – as when light bends as it transitions a boudnary, so that we see a pencil bent at an angle when inserted into water.

    But many optical illusions are not a problem with optics: what reaches the eye is exactly what we expect to reach the eye. The difference here is that we suffer a mental illusion, facilitated by the sense of sight. When we see a suspended Necker cube rotate in one direction the brain can make it appear as if it changes direction when it does not. It is a mental illusion, caused by the fact that the signals reaching the eyes are near enough the same whichever way the cube is rotating.

    Likewise, when we feel we are making free will decisions we are not. It is a mental illusion cause by the fact that we cannot detectour neurons working to ‘make our decisions’. It feels as if the mind is discnnected from the brain but somehow freely floating somewhere behind the eyes. And we can also close our let the brain imagine scenes, and even imagine we are somewhere else. But we cannot detect the details of the brain doing any of this, and so we have some people that feel they really are having ‘out of body’ experiences, when really they are having ‘out of body’ illusory perceptions.

    The big difference between optical mental illusions like the Necker cube and internal mental illusions of imagination and free will is how we can overcome them. For the Necker cube we can walk up to it and around it and see it is rotating in only one direction – we can turn of the common stimuli for left and right rotation and see more closely on the the one rotation. For the mental issusion of free will we cannot get in there and see our own neurons ‘making decisions’, responding to causally determined outcomes that make us ‘choose’ strawberry or vanilla ice cream.

    So, for the mental illusion of free will we have to train our minds to recognise the difference between the illusory perception and the intellectual understanding of what’s going on.

    This shouldn’t be difficult. Very few people have been to the moon, and before the Appollo missions nobody had. But that didn’t stop human engineers and scientists imagining what they needed to do to. That those same engineers at Nasa could walk out and suffer the illusions of watching a moonrise, or ‘seeing’ a half-moon, didn’t stop them intellectually processing the ideas that got a mission to the moon.

    So really what’s so difficult about living as if we have free will much of the time, but intellectually switching to the language of determinism and the illusion of free will when the situation requries it?

    Reply
  6. Ron Murphy

    Coel,

    “What are you saying, that we should not concern ourselves with a free press or freedom speech and not care if such laws are repealed?”

    No. Why would you think I’m saying that? In social language terms that’s fine. It’s quite straight forward to retain the meaning of ‘free press’ to mean ‘degrees of freedom of the press’, as in not being silenced by government. But even such a ‘free press’ consists of journalists being causally determined to write pieces on government nefarious activities and not constrained from doing so by government machinery.

    “Or, do you think, that as a matter of how to run society, it should be the case that if someone wants to criticise the government then they should be able to publish a newspaper saying so?”

    It seems to me that you would wonder about my thoughts on that only if you are confused by equivocating on the meaning of ‘free will’ to mean ‘free press’. It’s the dualists that created the term ‘free will’, very specifically to mean the will of a mind not under the influence direct causal determinism, and historically that sense of ‘free will’ has become associated with ‘free press’. It is you that is equating these terms and therefore supposing I mean to abolish a ‘free press’ by calling ‘free will’ illusory.

    In ‘free will’ terms there is no ‘free press’, because the press, the journalists do not have ‘free will’ with which to act free of all physical constraints. All we require of a ‘free press’ is that it is only relatively free of some constraints.

    Think of ‘free press’ as: degrees of freedom of action of a machine (a newspaper without ‘free will’) with components that are journalists (without ‘free will’) that are caused to write an article; an article criticising another machine (a government without ‘free will’) with components that are ministers (without ‘free will’) that are in turn caused to oppose that article (because of their own caused interests), but are unable to do so because constraints on the actions of ministers to stop the article are weaker than the constraints they are caused to impose on the press. The degrees of freedom of the press are greater than the degrees of freedom of the government to oppose the press.

    That’s a free press. Not an ounce of free will necessary.

    Of course that means there is no truly totally free press. Of course even distant causes have an effect. So a journalist is causally connected to the ministers he interviews, as well as other influences not so directly connected to government. When the Sun reported unfavourably on the Hillsborough disaster the Liverpool public had an effect on that newspaper that must have caused some change in its reporting. It’s degrees of freedom were curtailed to some extent. A ‘free press’ does not have ‘free will’, even though the origin of the term is wrapped up in the language of ‘free will’, as are many of the terms you used to express human freedoms. But the distinction is important: a ‘free press’ does not have ‘free will’, and it is an illusion to think it has.

    “No I’m not! Can we ditch (1) entirely? I’m a deterministic machine!”

    Maybe you can – how could I tell how your brain works. So can I, when I think about it. But I have no need of that ‘cure’, and so quite happily talk in terms of ‘free will’, as easily as talking in terms of sunsets. And the majority of people that oppose our deterministic view cannot so easily reject (1), so they need the clearest of terms that describe how they can do that. Incompatibilisms makes the point very clear by saying free will is an illusion.

    Reply
  7. Anton Szautner

    Excellent and clearly thought out analysis of an excruciating long-running ‘debate’. Once again, well done.

    It occurs to me that one does not even need to invoke quantum indeterminacy (aside from its fundamental role woven into the fabric of existence) to find entirely ‘classical’ circumstances in which a decision between options allowed by natural laws are encountered. Any reasonable person will agree that configuration states of materially-hosted minds and the environment they are imbedded in and wholly responsible to are obviously ‘preconditioned’ by situational outputs that are consequences of previous situations. No rational person would suggest that options for specific response to a given situation (system configuration) are not frequent features of an aspect of natural reality which includes .

    That seems to be the point where the confusion ramps up to awesome levels of dunderheadedness on both ‘sides’ of this ludicrous spectacle some call a debate.

    We may indeed certainly NOT expect to be able to inflict our fantasy conceptual models on reality. In other words, nothing we may ever expect to be able to do (yes, even in the conceptual confines of ‘principle’) can possibly be ‘free willed’ into existence, by any amount of effort…unless we deceive ourselves a little bit by the ever-present convenience of identifying whatever product of such effort IS the object which fantasy holds in the mind in the form of concept (precept).

    We do that all the time, in confusing our conceptual models of reality with the actuality the conceptions denote. Some of us are careful enough to remind that what we think of an object is not the object (as per Magritte, “This is not a pipe”), that there is a fundamental distinction and difference between reality and the conception of it. What is almost never appreciated is that the gulf between reality and any conceptual model of it, however precise, is as every bit as wide as that which separates reality from the wildest irrational fantasy a mind may contain.

    If i wish to fly on a winged unicorn, i will fail to realize it unless i manufacture something that i can arbitrarily identify to my own mind’s satisfaction as a ‘winged unicorn’, utilizing the real physics of nature that exist totally outside and independent of my vain ‘mind’, comfortably housed as it is within a material brain that is the outcome of a disconcertingly complex history of cumulative natural and cultural (as well as the infinitely stronger and barely studied ‘personal dialogue’, at least in this context) SELECTION.

    Of course, that trick in no way validates the ability of the human mind to realize any fantasies that might support the notion, let alone the existence, of a ‘freedom of will’. But neither would it in the slightest suggest that an adherence (heh) to physical laws precludes an ability to address options provided by such reality under the strict operational regime of natural physics, in investing minds with an ability to select one among a range of potential courses of action (‘decision-making’) in order to arrive at at a desired outcome we may just as arbitrarily identify as ‘free will’.

    Within the house of the mind, we exercise ‘free will’ whether we like it or not. Yet, within the house of the mind, there can be no such thing as a ‘freedom of will’ from the perspective of the universe. Its pretty obvious by such reasoning that the question is continbgent on the point of view one wishes to adopt, and any such adoption must invariably be contained within the house of the mind.

    As a result, this nonsense becomes an insufferable exercise in stupidity, well candy-appled by philosophical excess. The QUESTION of whether or not we possess something people call ‘free will’ is inherently idiotic on fundamentally philosophical grounds. It is the stuff of cheap chaff philosophy; to hold an opinion on either side is to expose one’s towering naivete and penchant for ignorance.

    However, in this particular estimation the ‘debate’ could potentially open an important window of insight on the nature of the relationship between the mind, with its phenomenological (conceptual) artifacts (there is no other kind – everything we think can only be conceptual models or based on ‘procedures of mentation’, whether exercised by logician or supernatural spiritualist, its all ‘fantasy’ equally divorced from the real) and the actual reality within which those conceptual model-making devices are compelled to exist in and operate under.

    But that debate doesn’t. It doesn’t even get warm to the clue.

    ‘Free will’? Anybody who argues so vehemently over that idiotic and tediously time-wasting question, for or against, hasn’t the slightest clue of what they think they are arguing for or against. It is telling, from either side of the ‘issue’, that opposing views cannot even manage to arrive at a mutually agreeable definition of it, as you have so aptly described.

    Naturally, all the above remarks are a product of a mind that has been exposed to the very same conceits that give us all the comfortable illusion that we have some measure of ‘free will’. But saying so doesn’t matter in the slightest.

    The significance of whether we may or may not be able to exercise any amplitude in a selected course of action is zero.

    It would be infinitely more interesting to witness discussions on the real conundrum of the relationship of mind and natural reality, and refreshingly dispense with the idiotic need to fall within one camp opposing another in yet another disgraceful exhibition of pointless academic posturing competition.

    We may operate ONLY under the auspices of our particular, individual, and terrifyingly lonely sphere of conceptual model-making – models of how we THINK the world works. And indeed, that circumstance should certainly not provide any excuse for our predicament, as too many of us are encouraged to think, on exceedingly pathetic grounds, that opinion magnified by union of voices should constitute something that is supposed to be identified with truth.

    No matter that either side of a preposterous debate ever bothers to identify just this little bit: whatever we ‘choose’ to be significant or important enough to occupy our minds, and the time we while and waste away applying our exceptional powers of attention to it.

    Dammit. That did not need quantum mechanics as a refutation or justification, in any remotest appeal to any strict scientific reasoning, did it?

    Some of us are audacious enough to be satisfied with concentrating on real problems, making a fair effort to refine our personal conceptual models to conform to the actual physics of nature we are marveled to be a part of…not just because we have some ill-defined thirst for ‘truth’ (or, dare i say, in any idiotic pursuit of winning a prize for intellectual acheivement* which can be paraded before one’s peers in order to show everyone how important the concept of celebrity is), but because of a powerful and emminently practical appreciation of a natural reality outside of our oft muddle-headed modeling heads, in an understanding which may prove beneficial if not compulsory in the pursuit of survival within an environment that is not controlled by our conceptual whims…that otherwise beautiful frontier of the unknown towards which we toil so endlessly and that invites us to penetrate into it and beyond in order to bring it within the realm of the known, by those who wish simply to understand…an occupation which – in the tedious fashionable idiom of the scientifically-minded, ‘it turns out’ – a very few of us scientists actually appreciate and fewer still ever bother to Keep. In. Mind.

    That’s all. That’s the entirety and basement of it – we are restricted to the mind: to acquire an increasing understanding of how the world works, we must acquire information from outside of it, but in the end we can only juggle that knowledge within our minds. We are never privy to any understanding that isn’t anything other than a conceptual model, and in that respect alone our understanding will always be deficient.

    Despite that limitation, the genuine pursuit of knowledge still has a dignity that will not suffer bufoonery like that exhibited by opinion-mongering intellectuals in farce debates like that surrounding the question of ‘free will’. The important questions that are chronically left unaddressed in that ridiculous battlefield are the ONLY aspects that would give the question any interest ; the fact that adherents of either side don’t bother to check their own identity of mind – and lo and behold, that itself is a stirling example of selection between options presented within the restricted territory of our MINDS, however unconscious such a decision may be – not only demonstrates the bankrupcy of the question, but reveals the obfuscation at the core issue that would immediately arrest it as the assinine question that it is.

    I’m afraid i’ve gotten emotionally wound up now. Hmmm, one wonders how that little human foible colors this profound debate on ‘free will’. It isn’t as if anybody on either side is particularly interested in noticing such constant reminders that any contest is fought entirely on home conceptual grounds, territory within which one is compelled to exercise something we might identify as ‘free will’ or be considered comatose. Just saying, you know, academically.

    This free will gag is nothing but a pathetically insoluble argument replete with opinions and little else, the kind of argument that pretends to address a question of worth where there isn’t any, and draws a crowd which predictably arranges itself into a system of diametrically-opposed competing camps of opinion camouflaged in the cheapest attire of philosophy. It has nothing whatsoever to do with any legitimate scientific or philosophical question in any dire need of addressing.

    *Rumor has it these come with a medallion or trophy of some sort, which comes in handy in demonstrating celebrity status.

    Reply
  8. Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn

    Coel,
    Excellent post! But we know it will just continue to go in circles on WEIT because you have explained that stuff several times over already.

    I am not sure if “most people have been dualists” really captures the whole picture. It pays to distinguish between what people believe that they believe and what they really believe as shown by their actions. A lot of people believe that they believe in a paradisic afterlife, but few of them fail to grieve for their loved ones and to avoid danger. The few who are happy when their children die and who chose martyrdom are the minority who really do hold the relevant belief; the others can merely be said to hope.

    In the context of free will, the fact that people generally try to predict others’ behaviour shows that they are really determinists, the fact that they don’t try to put a landslide into prison shows that they are compatibilists, and the fact that they cry “ow, my foot” as opposed to “oy, you stepped onto the foot of the body I am currently inhabiting” shows that they are really not dualists, regardless of any intellectual posturing they may exhibit. I would argue beyond empty intellectual exercise, in lived practice, only a small minority of very insane people are really anything but physicalist compatibilist determinists.

    Reply
  9. Why is life full of ups and downs?

    Where is the free will of a person who is forcefully fed antipsychotic medication, so that his thoughts and choices are no longer determined by their schizophrenia?

    Reply
  10. Darren Pellichino

    After reading the remarks I have to make a point of interest clear. The idea of free will being an illusion or the concept of no free will is implying the decision process determines a choice before conscious thought. I follow the reasoning that make the control systems of thought in certain optical situations to seem they come before the decision process is made. Optical sight is just a process of refracted imagery in a visible spectrum and is limited by many factors. Shapes that are farther away from your focal point are more blurred and thus can take on shapes that seem inserted into your thought. But even when these are inserted I can know they are not what is actually there. It would seem that to overcome my free will I would believe they are real and not a trick. My free will to understand would be decided before I can choose and i would believe it was real as my choice, but i don’t have that forced choice. I can see the shapes take form and still know it is not real.

    I can see also, that the will is the suggestion BTW and the will is not under control. The will is your pictures in your head, your attempts at making things logical for us to more efficiently choose. It is the will referred to when we say do as you will. In this context the will is not ours to control and thus we have no free will. But regardless of the will, in this context the choice to choose is still outside of the will. So we still choose our actions by assessing the suggestions from the will. We can use some of the ideas or use none at all. My will would tell me not to run into a car, but I can still do it.

    Here is what I have learned about the mind and it’s affect on your actions…..At 17 till 22 I was basically in a hospital bed with cancer which gave me time to examine my thoughts and compare them to years of past experiences. I traced all of my worst actions back to these self defeating, self loathing, selfish minded concepts that were firmly planted in my subconscious. I also traced many other actions I did not want to be part of me back to this subconscious or unconscious self. I have eradicated all remnants of those seeds and am very good at finding and removing them now.

    Your reaction to the outside is the first action, it is emotional and suggestive based and not under your control. From that point on you can chose to follow the emotion or allow the emotions to wash over you with chemical releases, and still ignore the action geared by the emotion. That’s not the subconscious though…the subconscious, for me, was little whispered suggestions against the value of holding to a strict code of ethics. Like a little devil on my shoulder. It is caged now along with all of my primal emotions, which is handy in real life as it turns out. *(the cage is under immense pressure)* So on a few occasions opening it has at most, saved my life, or at least made a deep impression on many people. I guess I believe we have a reactive free will.

    Like if I walked up to a cold stone and had to order, I wouldn’t know what I wanted and basically would strategize how important a new flavor was compared to a tried and true flavor. The new flavor may not be so good but I would try something new(I love to try everything at least once) and the familiar would be a guaranteed positive experience(I love the sense of taste). There is no set push to choose and I would likely have to hurry up and choose because I have too many choices. So I pick sorta randomly at this. That doesn’t seem very determined before I choose and it does seem more will suggested ideas. I have done deep internal searching in my body and outside for the source.

    I am a biologist but work in chemical labs for the last 20 years. So I have to read often to keep up with the biological field. The most amazing thing I have discovered is cognitive testing with plants. It is repeated and repeated and apparently plants are conscious of more than just what touches them physically or chemically. They react to help other neighbor plants in many ways, both in the soil and in the topside environment. They are very good community minded organisms that forgo nourishment to help a failing neighbor in communities of many different species. This is helped me to understand conscious without a brain or nervous system. Although I agree our bodies are in a way a machine in the sense that everything from the universe down to an atom is a machine. That’s not saying it is in any way similar to our mechanical constructs. But that a machine driven by a conscious being. I also believe in a creator because the Sun did in fact create us, the Earth, Life ect… So no one in science should call himself a non-creationists.

    And lastly this idea that all people who claim phenomenons unexplained by science are lying is not really a valid dismissal. Even unintentionally lying because of delusion is not valid. There are phenomenon that are real and unable to exist in our science of physical laws. I personally know of two in my 45 years of life.

    Either way it turns out, it is not really going to affect us though. Unless we can find a dis-connect to take control if we are in fact being driven to choose unawares. BTW your logical discussions are the best I have read. I really feel like a layman when I read some of your stuff. I will try not to embarrass myself too bad =)

    Reply
  11. agrudzinsky

    Perhaps, this article .would shine some light on the misunderstandings behind the concept of “free will”. http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/cranston11.htm

    The word “free” is meaningless unless we indicate “free from what”. We say we are “free” when we are not aware of any constrains preventing us from doing something. It does not mean that the constrains do not exist. Wehe are just not aware of them.

    When we look at a playing card facing down, we talk about probability of that card being queen of hearts (for example). But the card is what it is. When the card is facing up and we see what it is, there is no probability or chance any more. It is determined – but it’s the same card, just facing up.

    Reply
  12. Darren Pellichino

    Similar to the word free there are plenty of other meanings for hungry as well. Hungry for passion, hungry for success ect. So a stranger saying I am hungry has a variable as well as a man who says he is free. Or a bird in a cage could mean a cage of despair or similar metaphorical cage. Now if you said a bird is in that cage and point, then it is specific. Like a person saying I am free to choose what flavor I want. Not just I am free. It seems like splitting hairs on the word free. I was more interested in the will part. I don’t think we are free from the will, that seems to be there making suggestion outside of your decision process. As well as emotions, they are reactive. Now I can force some emotions like anger by screaming in a kinda sinister way. That will get adrenaline to release. Fear is harder because I can try to logically visualize a spider or snake inches from my neck, but the fear emotion is not assured. Still having some control over forced emotion has no effect on how a loud unexpected bang feels or beautiful girl smiling at you feels. Those are instant and outside of your control.

    I was curious on the thoughts on the control of your action by these two uncontrollables more than the angles of the word free. I sometimes are just a puppet to these two before I realize I have choices LOL.

    Also on a playing card probability, if you make the statement before you shuffle and lay a card down it is an actual probability of chance. Once a thing is set down it is a thing not a probability.

    Reply
  13. stevenjohnson

    I hope that posting on your blog is a sufficient expression of solidarity. From what I’ve seen, we personally disagree on a great many things, but I can’t see that you’ve ever deserved personal abuse.

    That said, I am going to disagree with you about compatibilism, not just because in this culture you can’t talk about morality and choice without invoking dualistic free will despite your best intentions. I think the real problem is that there are far, far too many situtations intermediate between a brain tumor and unconstrained choice. For example, the social opprobrium against homosexuality means, by compatibilist lights, that sometimes homosexuals willfully choose to defy moral expectations against others (sons refusing to breed more farm hands in peasant societies perhaps.)

    That’s an easy and less controversial example. Drug addicts also defy social opprobrium. Compatibilist language makes it incredibly difficult to even talk sensibly about these cases I think. The compatibilist default to assumption of moral responsibility in the old sense I think is meant to keep the old moral systems, regardless. Can’t find a brain tumor, therefore drug addicts continue to use drugs in willful defiance, and therefore deserve their punishment. Compatibilism seems to me a default to dualistic moral systems, in defiance of as many facts as possible…even if occasional positions have to be informed of the results of science.

    I’ve come to think there’s a larger problem, which is the notion that the needs and wants of actual people are not values in themselves. The empirical variation discovered in people may mean that most or all previous moral systems are essentially ideological, aimed at making some people’s ideas “normative,” instead of others. But I think ethics should be based on facts, not just informed by them.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Steven,
      Thanks for your post, which I appreciate.

      For example, the social opprobrium against homosexuality means, by compatibilist lights, that sometimes homosexuals willfully choose to defy moral expectations against others …

      Yes, you’re right. In compatibilist terms, some people do indeed willfully defy the moral expectations of society. But compatibilism makes no comment on whether or not they are “right” to do so.

      Indeed, I don’t think that compatibilism (or determinism itself) is consistent with moral realism, so any compatibilist has to abandon the idea of morals being objectively true.

      Thus, I don’t see any problem for compatibilism here. In some people’s opinion the societal consensus will be correct, in other people’s opinion it will be wrong. Compatibilism sides with neither.

  14. Roo Bookaroo

    “But I think ethics should be based on facts, not just informed by them.”

    It’s Friday, TGIF, and I am in one of my dumb periods.
    – “Facts”: Who tells us what the facts are, who has witnessed them, catalogued them, sanctioned them? In what book are all those facts collected and labeled? Are they “scientific” facts, or simply observable by some, but not by all?
    – “based”: Who is doing the basing? Why do we need a “basing” in the first place?
    – “should”: every “should” raises in me an alarm bell, dumb period or not. Who promulgated the “should”? Is it written also in another book, in that imaginary library of “book of facts”, “book of “shoulds”. Why do we have to worry about any “should” in the first place? Are we being intimidated by something or somebody so that we “should” do something? Where does any “should” come from anyway?
    – “ethics”: Where do they exist? In people’s brains, or again in another big book somewhere? This shelf has a lot of books, and it must be hard to read them all, and make sense of them.
    – “informed”: What does that mean? Excuse my mental deficiency today, as I said, it’s Friday, feeling very tired after a full week’s hard thinking.

    The more I read this sentence, the more my anxiety is growing that I simply don’t understand it. Something must be seriously wrong, most certainly with me.

    Reply
  15. stevenjohnson

    ^^Yes, there are many who believe that ethics are normative precisely because they are not based on mere facts. As you imply, other ways of knowing are preferred, such as revelation, custom, personal intuition, philosophical reason opposed to scientism, other unspecified or eclectic grounds.

    In the context of this discussion, the fact that there is a natural variation in human beings is one that is contradicted by most ethical systems. And so is the fact that most people cannot by rational contemplation choose what they want. And potential facts, likelihoods based on current knowledge, such as the apparent impossibility of transitively ordering utilities don’t seem even to be issues for current ethicists. I’m sorry but this does not seem to me to be a good thing, selective skepticism about “facts” notwithstanding. If relying on science in thinking about morality still leaves us with difficulties about the

    Reply
  16. conn suits

    50,000 points for beautiful clarity! Thank you Coel. I was unfamiliar with the terminology compatibilist and incompatibilist. And I have to say this whole set of ideas including this type of “determinism” is a set of things I completely reject. But I’m very glad I now know what it is. For what it’s worth I agree with your point here. I have vague memories of learning about the difference between the metaphysical and the social idea of moral conduct from my philosophy professor father when I was a kid. We were old time atheists and although I’m not sure my father was a full on materialist he certainly looked at things that way. Materialism then was in no way intrinsically tied to scientific knowledge or the processes that science studies. I found that idea particularly surprising in your post. That’s a newie. Anyway I remember being shown that even if abstract concepts of morality are rejected people are influenced by society. Just like you showed. This was not regarded as having anything whatsoever to do with magical or metaphysical things. Rather it was “how the world is” and therefore seen as intrinsically arrayed against the magical things of religion. So the incompatiblilistlists strike me as having a bug up there butt about nothing. Perhaps I have misunderstood.

    What I find really interesting in all of this is nominal atheists associating morality with religion. That religions suck at morality is a classic atheist position. We’re talking like 19 century stuff. If not Enlightenment. Also interesting is, if I understand correctly, the term “dualist” used to refer to the soul. By the people Coel is describing. Why not just say soul? Deciding and judging using its special soul whammy, meaning if you have a good soul you can make valid moral judgments, is the Christian soul. And Christian metaphysics is straight out of Plato. So what they’re calling dualism I would call Platonism. Thus making it even easier to see that the social meaning of “choice”, “freedom”, “moral” is nothing to do with Platonism since it does not take up or acknowledge the phenomenon of society.

    Another eerie feature of the these ideas, that are new to me, is determinism always used to be the very bad very religion thing. Like Calvinism. It was seen as a stupid idea that Christianity used in order to have power over its adherents. God is deciding everything will thing that happens in your life. That you should be thinking about religious things and being judged absolutely all the time is apparently not something that existed before Christianity. At least in that part of the world. So I don’t know where the idea of determinism came from. It might be some earlier Greek thing. But it also might be this magical and specifically religious notion. I’m not sure. So as you can see this science-based notion of determinism that all you guys, compatibilists and incompatibilists, accept is one that I reject. For a lot of different reasons to do with science. I’m a brain scientist. But also because “determinism” has this very bad pedigree. I would be very interested to know how this idea that science can be allied to “determinism” came to be.

    A splendid explication. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  17. Marvin Edwards

    Rational Determinism

    Determinism makes free will inevitable. Here’s how:

    Many living organisms have evolved a nervous system capable of specialized functions that include sensory input, motor control, memory, imagination, cognition, self-awareness, planning, experimentation, and deliberate choosing.

    Thinking is a process rooted in the physical structure of the nervous system, especially the brain. We know this because injury to specific areas of the brain can disable the corresponding function.

    As a thinking organism interacts with its environment it learns by trial and error. When we first cross a stream we must guess how hard to jump from one rock to the next. Jump too hard or not hard enough and you end up in the water. We choose and we try. The successful choices become habits of muscle memory.

    Choosing is as real as walking. Both are phenomena relying upon the physical structure of the human body, which is a product of evolution within our deterministic universe.

    Some things, like walking or jumping, we have to learn on our own. Many other things are taught by parents, schools, churches, and peers. Later we may re-examine their choices and make our own.

    When making new or difficult decisions on our own, we go through a process of deliberation. We start with uncertainty. Then we consider possible options. We imagine the outcomes of each choice. We may consciously list reasons, perhaps even writing them down. We may examine how thinking of each choice makes us feel. Finally, we make our choice and we act upon it.

    This is called our “will”, because it intends to determine the future in a specific way. And if our choice was our own, and not forced upon us by someone else, then it is called a choice of our own “free will”.

    Again, the mental process of deliberation and choosing are rooted in the reality of our physical, deterministic universe. Our reasons and feelings caused us to make this specific choice, at this specific time, under these specific circumstances. Therefore our choice was “deterministic” and “inevitable”.

    However, we were the final cause of that inevitability. The reasons and feelings were ours, and they could determine nothing on their own. It was only after they informed our will and we acted upon it that they had any impact upon reality.

    Our experience of hearing our own reasoning as we consciously deliberate, and our feeling good or bad due to our unconscious evaluation of one option over another, are real. They are the product of our physical bodies.

    Therefore we cannot dismiss the mental process as some kind of illusion. Thinking is as real as walking. And thinking about more than one option leads to choosing. And that choosing must be happening within our physical minds, because where else could the mind be?

    The process of choosing determines our will. Our will determines our action. And our actions determines what inevitably comes next. And what comes next may be as simple as having chocolate rather than vanilla or as significant as raising the temperature of the planet.

    But when people hear that they have no free will, or that they are not responsible for anything, it can lead to a sense of fatalism and apathy. The belief that determinism means free will is an illusion is irrational. The belief that free will means that determinism is an illusion is equally irrational. The fact is that both are quite real, and only the belief that they are somehow in conflict is an illusion.

    In summary, to say that free will is merely an illusion is wrong. Free will is us choosing, and us choosing is a product of the physical and deterministic universe — which means that free will is an inevitable product of our deterministic universe.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi caveat,
      Just read your blog post. You make a good point, that the conceptions of “free will” that many people hold are incoherent and have not been worked out into a sensible proposal. I guess many people would say that a non-material soul does the “willing” and this then affects the physical material. But how this non-material “will” works is, as you say, not really addressed.

  18. Pingback: Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism | coelsblog

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