More entertainment at the free will rodeo

by Neil Rickert

I was watching a fight over on the blogosphere, when all of a sudden, a discussion of free will broke out.

In the left corner, it is Jerry Coyne.  In the right corner, we find John Horgan.  Coyne accuses Horgan of a nasty and mean-spirited attack on Sam Harris.  And he suggests that Horgan gives his psychological motivations at the outset.

I don’t know how others see this.  But I see Horgan’s “mean-spirited attack” and list of “psychological motivations” as an attempt at self-deprecating humor.  Admittedly, humor often doesn’t carry very well in Internet postings, and perhaps John Horgan isn’t all that good at humor.  Still, I think Coyne might have considered the possibility that it was not intended to be a “mean-spirited attack.”

According to one way of describing history, at a time past a glob of molecules that went by the name “Jerry Coyne” made some completely involuntary tics, that resulted in meaningless ink marks on paper.  The first few of those meaningless ink marks looked a little like this:

Why Evolution is True

According to a different way of describing history, the biologist Jerry Coyne wrote an interesting book titled “Why Evolution is True”, a book filled with meaningful ideas.

Horgan seems to favor that second way of describing history.  Because of that Jerry Coyne accuses Horgan of being a dualist.

If I go by blind faith in the inerrancy of a highly literalistic reading of scientific laws, that favors Coyne’s position.  If I go by the evidence, that seems to support Horgan’s position.

I think I will go by the evidence.

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14 Comments to “More entertainment at the free will rodeo”

  1. When Horgan said “But how can I not criticize Harris when he’s bashing an idea that I cherish? And promoting determinism, a philosophy that I loathe?”, I wonder if he considered that you don’t need to promote determinism to believe that free will is an illusion (“illusionism”, a concept that I agree with). All you need to do is promote the ideas of randomness and/or determinism, rather than just strict determinism. I’m not very familiar with Horgan, but I imagine it is the deterministic (history has been written) mentality that he loathes. If the future and our actions were undeterminable, but still not free (i.e. random), would he still loathe the idea of no free will?

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    • If the future and our actions were undeterminable, but still not free (i.e. random), would he still loathe the idea of no free will?

      Undeterminable does not imply random.

      If a yachtsman sees that, by random luck, the wind is blowing in the direction he is going, he will set his sails to go with the wind. If, instead, random luck has the wind blowing in the wrong direction, he will tack across the wind and beat a zig-zag path toward his destination. Either way, he gets where he wants to go. The response to random events does not need to be random behavior.

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      • I never said that something being undeterminable implies randomness. I said that randomness implies that the will is not free while still being undeterminable (the will doesn’t exist) because it is due to chance rather than an agent causing it. You must have misread what I wrote. If true randomness is all there is besides determinism, then the yachtsman has no choice. The wind is in a certain direction which he has no control over, and his response to the wind’s direction is determined based on his destination (due to a number of events that were out of his control, including the indoctrinated interest in his destination).

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        • The evidence suggests that he does have a choice.

          If you connect random electrical fluctuations to a diode, you get a directed current flow.

          If you have random chemical fluctuations on one side of a semi-permeable membrane, you get a directional flow. Random events need not imply random results.

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          • “The evidence suggests that he does have a choice.”

            No, the evidence does not suggest that he has a choice. What is suggests is that he has the illusion of a choice, which is not nearly the same thing.

            “If you connect random electrical fluctuations to a diode, you get a directed current flow.
            If you have random chemical fluctuations on one side of a semi-permeable membrane, you get a directional flow. Random events need not imply random results.”

            Just because there is something that restricts one parameter that was random, to have a direction, the signal can still be random and does imply random results. Even in the case of a diode, the pulses could be random in terms of frequency, amplitude, etc., and you would have random results with regards to the resultant DC current amplitude, frequency of pulses, etc. If something is fundamentally random, such as quantum randomness, it does not matter what you funnel or filter the randomness through, overall the results are still random. In a two-slit experiment with photons hitting a screen detector, the overall pattern of light and dark fringes will be predictable over time (the average result), but each individual photon hits the screen in an unpredictable manner (random according to quantum conventions). While you may have instances where some element of randomness can be directed (as in the example with a diode), there are plenty of random events that occur that can’t be channeled into something that represents them as a non-random or less random event. It is those random events, unlike the diode, that we are concerned with here. The random events that govern quantum states, and thus the fundamental state of every particle/wave packet in the universe. If fundamental randomness is a quality at it’s core, then there is no control over what happens (no free will with regard to random events). In the case of a diode, likewise, you can’t control what will happen in every aspect, because as I mentioned earlier, the amplitude could still be random, as well as the frequency, etc., even after passing through the diode. You seem to imply that just because you can eliminate one random quality or arbitrary metric (such as direction) that the random quality disappears and can be taken care of which is not true at all. It is only true that one element of randomness has been HIDDEN for the arbitrary metric that you filtered (and in the process you’ve also lost information as you are now missing some quality of the original energy source — in this case direction (pos. or neg. voltage would be another piece of information that would exist if the diode was not present). So not only does filtering fail to take away all random qualities (it only hides the randomness, it doesn’t allow you to control what random events happen), but in doing so you limit the amount of information that is passed down which is definitely not something that free will proponents want to do (they want to preserve adequate determinism and not lose information, paradoxically, because all reasoning and logic is based on predictability and at least adequate determinism. If things didn’t have a cause-effect relationship, there would be no “willing” anything because results of actions would be completely random (not just fundamentally random as is the case with quantum randomness). So paradoxically, free will proponents require a quality that negates free will anyways. It is a lose-lose situation with regards to a logical argument. Free will can’t exist because people’s “willed” actions aren’t self-caused (causa sui), rather they are caused by previous events (in the causal chain even outside the scope of that person’s consciousness) or caused by random events which are also out of their control. Now these arguments that I’ve presented which I’ve never seen logically refuted are only one dimension of disproving the existence of classical free will. On other levels we can also argue that even if those fundamental qualities of our existence weren’t true, we still have environmental conditioning and indoctrination that when combined with our genetically caused brain wiring, leads to our unconscious motivations that also effect behavior. You only like the things you like and believe what you believe because of the sources of indoctrination you’ve had, in combination with your genes that form a decision maker of sorts that makes calculated decisions using emotional tagging in your temporal lobe (amygdala) as well as the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for decision making skills. If you were born anywhere else, or brought up with a different religion by your parents you would have different opinions on many subjects even though you were the same person genetically. All of these various dimensions negate free will further and further and you don’t even need them to disprove free will (only basic arguments are needed that agree that we have any form of determinism and/or randomness).

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  2. “I mean, if I’m not different from a guy who kills because a tumor provokes him into murderous rages, how am I different from anyone or anything with a brain, no matter how damaged or tiny? Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence.”

    Horgan has clearly missed the point regarding his “choices” being constrained by the laws of physics. He probably thinks of the physical laws creating hurdles such as not being able to choose to fly like a bird, or something like that? Those are really constraints that are physically impossible. We need to discuss only “choices” that are physically possible. For if he realized that the laws of physics imply that every cause has it’s own cause, then he’d realize that nobody has any “choices” because they’ve already been made as a result of being right in the middle of a causal chain (as well as potential quantum randomness) which he has no control over. Every atom set in motion from the time of the big bang, leading to our galaxy, solar system, planet, country, state, and eventually birth were out of our control and there’s no reason to think that our brain’s are any different from the rest of the atoms in the universe — moving about due to laws of physics.

    “But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

    His limited choices aren’t taking into account the causal chain of atomic motion, an arbitrary fundamental building block that adds up to brains, human action, etc. Those atoms don’t do what you tell them to. It is the atoms that force you to do what you do because of those aforementioned “laws of physics”. I have never heard one compelling argument that demonstrates that classical free will can exist (true ability to make another choice given the same conditions), let alone with deterministic laws of physics in place. Your thoughts?

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  3. “Harris keeps insisting that because all our choices have prior causes, they are not free; they are determined. Of course all our choices are caused. No free-will proponent I know claims otherwise. The question is how are they caused? Harris seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense.”

    “But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes.”

    All the phenomena ARE reducible to physical processes. I don’t understand why Horgan fails to see that. It appears he just lacks a breadth of scientific understanding. He may even be misinterpreting the “choice” limitations that he thinks Harris is trying to communicate.

    “Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world.”

    All that ideas are really (as well as anything else) is a form of energy (or energy transfer) which is a physical process.
    I can arbitrarily reduce every idea to the individual neural network patterns that produced them (inside the person’s mind that’s in question), which are in turn reducible to atomic arrangements. I can also reduce the transfer of those ideas from person-to-person to an arrangement of atoms, causing a neural network, decoded through physical processes, transformed into acoustic energy (speech) traveling through the air, hitting the other organisms acoustic sensors (ear drum, etc.), converted into electrical impulses, recoded into neural network patterns and proteins. It is true that the “idea” has a new synergistic quality that is unlike the constituent atoms that produced it, but this is no different than a bunch of meaningless letters arranged in a certain way that now have a new quality such as meaning (depending on translation, etc.). Just because something has a quality that it’s constituents don’t possess, doesn’t mean that the constituents didn’t synergize to create the new quality. Just as one cell seems less exciting than a bunch of them arranged into an organ, a brain, etc. All organs are still functioning as they are because of the cells which those organs have no control over ultimately, just as we have no control over the atomic arrangements that create our reality, brain, day-to-day experiences, etc.

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  4. Fundamentalism – the anti-American, anti-Christian branch of American Christianity–nwr

    You anti-fundamentalists are the people who went astray from true Christianity. Your religion is nothing more than secular humanism.

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    • Maybe you should have posted that at evcforum, instead of here. It seems a tad off-topic.

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    • What? I agree with Neil here…as this does seem a tad off topic. If you want to attack our religion (which you know nothing about us to justify doing so), then perhaps we can avoid using public platforms to attempt to embarrass one another. I, being a former Christian, have a familiarity with the monotheistic religions as well as their history behind thousands of years of patriarchal manipulation for political and property gain, suppression of women’s rights, and suppression of the “Goddess” (an idea older than the idea of a male deity such as “Yahweh”) that those religions have employed. My advice is to avoid making pointless comments that really have no argumentative nor constructive benefit to our discussion. The discussion topic is concerning arguments for and against the existence of free will, not religion. I’m aware that monotheists (like most other people in the world) seem to require free will in order to justify their religious beliefs and/or philosophy and no matter what arguments are presented, most will hold onto irrational beliefs because negating such beliefs undermines their religion, identity, moral responsibility, etc. We could make this conversation topic take a major religious turn but the concept of choosing “faith” over reason is going to have less merit in this forum than you may have hoped for. I think you’re “barking up the wrong tree” as the expression goes. I’m willing to take any debate to any conceptual level, but to avoid completely wasting my time, I’d like to primarily focus on logic, reasoning, and a holistic view of the universe, rather than arguments that have no evidence or falsifiability.

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      • What? I agree with Neil here…as this does seem a tad off topic.

        The chances are that Tim created a throw-away email address for the purposes of posting that comment. We probably won’t hear from Tim again.

        He was commenting on a forum signature line that I had used at evcforum. Why he would comment on a signature line, I do not know. Signature lines are typically slogans, and not really anything to be debated.

        I guess Tim was just exercising his free will.

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  5. Bottom line, if enough data is acquired about the present state of a system, anything is predictable due to only one option possible. If it is predictable in this fashion, then there is no free will — only the illusion of it. Anything that is not predictable is either random (an ontological indeterminism which implies we have no control over it, or it is still pre-determined and we just don’t have the epistemological capability to acquire that knowledge to understand how to predict the event — as we are constituents of a whole system that operates as a whole. In any case, we have a fundamental quality that implies we are just different forms of energy (we describe the energy as being in “different forms” but it is all one substance nevertheless — energy) in motion as a whole, and the universe is one entity. We only have the subjective illusion that we are objective beings with will, but once we realize that even our “self” is an illusion, than there can be no “I” that is willing anything (even if there were some way for human’s actions to be self-caused which there have been no logical arguments to support this position), for there is no “I” either, as it is also a subjective illusion. Classical free will stands no chance against these arguments. Any attempt to invalidate them and demonstrate that classical free will exists is only an exercise in futility. I don’t mind continually invalidating the arguments as it is a good brain exercise from time to time, but there’s just no way around it, unless you redefine the term “free will” in non-classical terms that negate it’s meaning for the purpose of the debate.

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    • Bottom line, if enough data is acquired about the present state of a system, anything is predictable due to only one option possible.

      I doubt that there could ever be enough data for that. The expression “the present state of a system” is nearly meaningless, as far as I can tell.

      Anything that is not predictable is either random (an ontological indeterminism which implies we have no control over it …

      I’m not sure what “ontological indeterminism” is supposed to mean. But then I’m a skeptic of ontology and of all metaphysics.

      The question of free will is not whether we can predict random events. It is whether we can exercise some control over how we respond to such events.

      In any case, I am not trying to persuade you that you have free will. Arguing the issue is a waste of time. What amuses me, is that people keep trying. And whenever they argue against free will, they thereby demonstrate that they are exercising their own free will. It is that kind of seeming contradiction that comes across as entertaining.

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  6. “I doubt that there could ever be enough data for that. The expression “the present state of a system” is nearly meaningless, as far as I can tell.”

    I’m aware that it is nearly meaningless, and the reason for it is quantum indeterminism, and the wave attributes (most specifically the probability amplitude of the wave) which causes it to be nearly meaningless due to our mind-limited conventions of referring to objects as particles, when fundamentally they are wave packets of energy. Not being able to get enough data is not the point. The point is that if you could get enough data (not possible but hypothetically if we didn’t have epistemological limitations) then we can predict everything that is not random. Even with the limited amount of data that we can fairly easily obtain is enough to predict quite a bit. Physics has shown us that we can predict what will happen when particles collide, when planes fly, planetary motion, etc. We also have found that all of science has relied on and continued to prove that things are predictable because of the causal-chain of physical events that are happening fundamentally at an atomic and subatomic level.

    “I’m not sure what “ontological indeterminism” is supposed to mean. But then I’m a skeptic of ontology and of all metaphysics.”

    Ontological indeterminism is the concept of not being able to determine something because the inability to know that something is the way things really are (regardless of epistemological limitations on knowledge). Not being able to determine that “something” would be a result of the way things work in the universe (not just because we are a constituent of the system and are unable to know objective things about that system).

    “The question of free will is not whether we can predict random events. It is whether we can exercise some control over how we respond to such events.”

    I only mention that random attribute of our quantum realm because it shows that not everything is determinable and thus the future isn’t necessarily written (if quantum randomness is ontologically random and not just a result of epistemological limitations). However, because everything else IS determinable based on the laws of physics, where we are fundamentally governed by atomic and subatomic particles moving with no “choice” except to move in the direction that forces are pulling them towards. If all you are is a collection of atoms that have no choice but to move in the direction that forces are pulling them, then all of our existence (the portion that isn’t random) is dependent on the energy fields surrounding those atoms. It does not depend on your consciousness. You are a living being because of specific atomic arrangements, and just because you have a certain level of consciousness and an illusion of free will doesn’t mean you can make any choices. Everything is ultimately chosen due to the laws of physics over these particles that you are composed of and that is but one fundamental reason why you do not have true free will. Even when you negate this fundamental “atomic control”, we have conditioning and genes (more dimensions of behavioral control that he have no role in ultimately choosing). We don’t choose our genes and that will influence how our brain is wired, some of our body chemistry and hormone levels and it will limit how we can think (limited by genes but genes give the brain a certain amount of plasticity but still has limits). It may make us more likely to become an alcoholic or be depressed, etc. Genes alone have a large influence on our life’s course because of the limitations (and strengths) they present from the get go. Then our environment and indoctrination from the get go are out of our control. People tell us what to do and how to think and it isn’t until we get to a much later age that we start to explore new sources of information, but regardless, everything is guided at least to some degree by unconscious motivations and the remainder is guided by your conditioning and indoctrination that you ARE conscious of. We think we are making choices when in reality we are just going through the motions and experiences a conscious illusion of free will. That’s why it’s so hard for people to let go because they want to feel that they have control over their actions.

    “And whenever they argue against free will, they thereby demonstrate that they are exercising their own free will. It is that kind of seeming contradiction that comes across as entertaining.”

    Your missing the point if you think that by writing on this forum that I’m exercising my free will. I’m not. I’m merely doing what my unconscious mind and internal processing (governed by my indoctrination, genes, etc.) are forcing me to do. That, and some of it may be a result of randomness (thus even with no free will, it does not mean that the future has to be pre-written). It’s not a contradiction at all because I am not freely willing to argue this. It is out of my control. Prove me wrong. If you like chocolate more than vanilla than “will” yourself to like vanilla more than chocolate. If you honestly think that when presented with equal circumstances, a “choice” you make could have happened another way (not due to randomness) then there has to be a reason for believing that. Physical evidence suggests that predictability implies it couldn’t have happened any other way (unless randomness is involved). Either way, there is not control on our part. Only an illusion of control.

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