The silliness of free will denial

by Neil Rickert

Over at his blogwebsite – Jerry Coyne has proposed a thought experment:

He starts by asserting that we have no free will.  And then Coyne asks his readers which of two options they would choose.

Then Coyne goes ahead and exercises his own free will, by choosing the first of those options.  Some of the commenters do likewise.  Other commenters exercise their free will to point out that the whole idea of making a choice is contrary to free will.

I guess I still have that quaint old fashioned idea that scientists are supposed to go by evidence.  And the evidence is that people spend much of their time making choices.

 

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49 Comments to “The silliness of free will denial”

  1. I’ve been trying to ween myself from pointing out Jerry’s philosophical fails. I’m glad that others will take up the task.

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  2. What if “making choices” is not the definition of free will? Computers and thermostats make choices, too.

    David Heddle seems to think that free will means “It is a choice not predetermined by the differential equation (or the Hamiltonian) of the universe. It is neither predictable nor, by quantum intederminacy, random.” If that’s the definition, what is the evidence we have it?

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    • The term “free will” comes from ordinary use by ordinary people, most of whom know nothing about Hamiltonians. It does not make sense to me, for “free will” to be given a definition that could not possibly be what most people mean when they use that expression.

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      • I decided to just google the term “free will” and do you know what popped up?

        “The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.”

        The first half is most important and applies to the “classical free will” I’ve referred to several times now. Acting without the constraint of “necessity” or “fate”. In other words, acting without the constraint of determinism. Science suggests that determinism (or adequate determinism with quantum randomness) is the dynamic the universe operates under. What else do you need here to be satisfied?

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        • The first half is most important and applies to the “classical free will” I’ve referred to several times now. Acting without the constraint of “necessity” or “fate”.

          But that’s just the denial of fatalism. Are you a fatalist? Many of the people who deny free will also deny that they are fatalists.

          In other words, acting without the constraint of determinism. Science suggests that determinism (or adequate determinism with quantum randomness) is the dynamic the universe operates under.

          No, science makes no such suggestion. Perhaps you reach that conclusion, but it is not a conclusion that you can attribute to science. The best scientific evidence is against determinism.

          Perhaps you would care to explain “adequate determinism with quantum randomness”.

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          • “But that’s just the denial of fatalism. Are you a fatalist? Many of the people who deny free will also deny that they are fatalists.”

            I do not deny that I am a fatalist, but this fatalism comes with a contingency. If determinism is true, then I am a fatalist. If any ontological randomness exists, then fatalism (hard fatalism) is false and I would reject that position.

            “No, science makes no such suggestion. Perhaps you reach that conclusion, but it is not a conclusion that you can attribute to science. The best scientific evidence is against determinism.”

            To be clear, I mean that the evidence given within science does suggest that determinism is how the universe operates (or at least adequate determinism with quantum randomness). Either way, determinism or randomness leave no room for classical free will to exist.
            You say that the best scientific evidence is against determinism. What evidence are you referring to? If it’s evidence that suggests adequate determinism with quantum randomness (i.e. modern physics consensus), then that goes perfectly in line with my previous statements. Free will is negated either way.

            “Perhaps you would care to explain “adequate determinism with quantum randomness”. ”

            Certainly. Adequate determinism implies that MOST of what we see (everything micro-macro scale) is deterministic, following Newton’s laws, Relativistic laws, etc. It is predictable. It is adequate because for all practical purposes, the majority of action in the universe is determined. This is complemented with quantum randomness which is the randomness that we’ve observed in the quantum realm (nano-scale and smaller). Some scientists believe it to be ontological randomness and others believe it to be deterministic disguised by epistemological limitations or some form of limitations in the data we have.

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          • To be clear, I mean that the evidence given within science does suggest that determinism is how the universe operates (or at least adequate determinism with quantum randomness).

            It does not suggest that to me.

            Here’s a minimalist definition of “free will”:

            Free will is the ability to make at least the kind of choices that are required in order to do science.

            I don’t see how fatalism is compatible with science. According to fatalism, when you test an hypothesis, the result that you get is fixed by fate, so it is not a genuine test.

            Certainly. Adequate determinism implies that MOST of what we see (everything micro-macro scale) is deterministic, following Newton’s laws, Relativistic laws, etc. It is predictable. It is adequate because for all practical purposes, the majority of action in the universe is determined. This is complemented with quantum randomness which is the randomness that we’ve observed in the quantum realm (nano-scale and smaller).

            This is flawed thinking.

            The evidence from QM is that the world is not deterministic.

            You know about that.

            That you know about quantum indeterminism is macro-scale, and it surely does not have the appearance of being totally random knowledge.

            The claim that quantum randomness has no effect beyond the nano-level is clearly false.

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          • “It does not suggest that to me.”

            Really? The scientific evidence out there doesn’t suggest to you that adequate determinism with quantum randomness is the way the universe operates? Explain.

            “Here’s a minimalist definition of “free will”: Free will is the ability to make at least the kind of choices that are required in order to do science.”

            This definition is pointless when talking about free will in classical terms, such that the main philosophical problems are addressed. Also, we’ve defined science as a process that we can practice, regardless of free will. Practicing science does not require that classical free will exists (or any kind of free will for that matter). For that matter, practicing anything at all does not require classical free will to exist. That’s the whole point.

            “I don’t see how fatalism is compatible with science. According to fatalism, when you test an hypothesis, the result that you get is fixed by fate, so it is not a genuine test.”

            Fatalism is completely compatible with science because within science we DO expect that the result is fixed. I don’t see where you’re going with this. This is silly reasoning. In science, when we test a hypothesis, we DO expect a fixed result. We don’t expect (average) results to change with the same testing method for if they did, we’d have no grasp on what we deem to be factual, true, false, etc. We would call it a poorly controlled experiment. Science would collapse if the result wasn’t fixed (with proper testing methods). If you are going to follow your rationale, it would be better to say that science is incompatible with genuine testing, since your definition of genuine testing assumes fatalism is not the case. See what I mean here? More importantly, denying something like Fatalism, just because it doesn’t fit in line with your idea of what science should be is illogical and irrational. It is the same type of attitude given by Abrahamic theists that say “That result of science can’t be true, because it may mean that my religion is false.” Oh well! Fatalism is still compatible with science, even if it isn’t compatible with what you think science is.

            Even though I believe we have no free will, that does not negate scientific inquiry. If fatalism is the case, then everything we do is done because it couldn’t have been done any other way, INCLUDING science. This means that ultimately, everything is compatible with fatalism EXCEPT anything that negates fatalism (e.g. ontological indeterminism, randomness, etc.). All action in the universe, (including our behavior of practicing science) is completely compatible with fatalism, because all action and behavior is a part of that fate.

            I said: “Certainly. Adequate determinism implies that MOST of what we see (everything micro-macro scale) is deterministic, following Newton’s laws, Relativistic laws, etc. It is predictable. It is adequate because for all practical purposes, the majority of action in the universe is determined. This is complemented with quantum randomness which is the randomness that we’ve observed in the quantum realm (nano-scale and smaller).”

            You said: “This is flawed thinking.”

            I mis-wrote something in my comments here that I see now is confusing, so let me correct myself here. What I mean to say is that either the universe is 100% deterministic or at least adequately deterministic with quantum randomness. What I mean by “adequate determinism with quantum randomness” is that the universe is near deterministic (i.e. it is highly deterministic at the macro-scale, although not 100%). The lack of complete determinism would be due to quantum randomness, but this adequate determinism implies that there is some level of predictable order in our universe, that is, even with quantum randomness, the universe is not completely random. We have fundamental forces that cause particles to move in predictable ways, which implies at least adequate determinism. This adequate determinism would apply for example to predicting what a bowling ball would do when dropped from the top of a building. It’s future motion is not 100% random, even though the constituent atoms and sub-atomic particles may have some level of randomness that for all practical purposes doesn’t affect our ability to predict the bowling ball’s macro-scale motion.

            “The evidence from QM is that the world is not deterministic.
            You know about that.”

            Actually the evidence from QM is that WE can’t predict everything with 100% certainty. Nowhere does the QM evidence say that the universe can’t be deterministic, it just means that we don’t have access to that determinism (if it does exist). The big debate that I think will never be solved is the ontological debate regarding these QM findings. Is the evidence in QM to be taken at face value or not? It certainly tells us what OUR knowledge limitations are as constituents of a system, but it tells us nothing conclusively about the system as a whole because we can’t access that information. So you are incorrect here. QM suggests that the universe is not deterministic by us, that is, that the universe does not appear to be determinable. Either way, even if it is ontologically random, there is still no room for classical free will. Randomness and determinism are both out of our control, so either way, this part of the debate is pointless to quibble over because both possibilities support by position.

            “The claim that quantum randomness has no effect beyond the nano-level is clearly false.”

            Yes, and I corrected myself above as I clearly mis-wrote my intentions. I agree that quantum randomness has an effect at all levels (nano, micro, macro, etc.), even though it does not appreciably affect our predictability of macro-scale events (e.g. the bowling ball is going to fall from the building and still follow the kinematic equation Vf = Vi + gt). That aside, randomness and determinism are both incompatible with classical free will, so either way, both of these possibilities we’ve considered still support my position.

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          • Really? The scientific evidence out there doesn’t suggest to you that adequate determinism with quantum randomness is the way the universe operates? Explain.

            I’m not sure what’s to explain. It seems to me that it is up to the determinists to explain their basis for assuming determinism. But they never give more than vague hand-waving explanations.

            Meteorology does not look deterministic; geology does not look deterministic; biology does not look deterministic.

            Sure, physics has some deterministic laws. But physics comes first, so they get to pluck the low hanging fruit. But even within physics, it does not look deterministic. The gas laws are deterministic, but they are also false and well known to be false. We call them “ideal gas laws” because they are true only about imaginary ideal gases, not about real gases.

            I don’t see a case for determinism there.

            What I mean by “adequate determinism with quantum randomness” is that the universe is near deterministic (i.e. it is highly deterministic at the macro-scale, although not 100%).

            If it is not 100% deterministic, then it is not deterministic.

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          • “I’m not sure what’s to explain.”

            Then you completely missed my explanation and question. I mentioned that the universe operates with a mix of adequate determinism and randomness. These two components explain the quantum findings, while also explaining the order we DO see at the macro-scale, that is, the level of order that gives us any predictability at all.

            Are you suggesting that no level of predictability exists (i.e. no level of determinism or amount of non-randomness)? If so, then you must not be looking very closely at the fields within science which show predictable results all the time. We can’t predict everything, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t predict anything. So as I asked before, please explain.

            “Meteorology does not look deterministic; geology does not look deterministic; biology does not look deterministic.”

            In what ways? So meteorologists are wasting their time because they can’t predict anything? I don’t think so. They may not be able to predict everything but as the amount of data improves, their ability to predict continues to increase, even if it is never able to reach 100%. Geology and Biology are the same way. When scientists realize how things react to various forces in the environment, they anticipate certain changes, they predict just the same. However, Geology in particular is more concerned with the past (as Cosmology is) as opposed to predicting the future. We can use geological evidence however to determine what types of rock formations, mineral concentrations, etc., will form given specific conditions. So once again there is a level predictability associated within all these fields, which implies some level of determinism (a causal chain).

            “If it is not 100% deterministic, then it is not deterministic.”

            Yes, I never said it was. I said that it is EITHER deterministic or adequately deterministic with quantum randomness. Adequate determinism is NOT determinism. Adequate determinism implies that there is SOME level of order within a causal chain. This is obviously true since our reasoning involves the assumption of a causal chain. We see cause-effect relationships all around us and THAT is what adequate determinism is. If we didn’t have at least adequate determinism (some level of determinism), that would imply that everything is random, and that would mean that there are no cause-effect relationships which is clearly false based on what we see everyday in our reality, within science, etc. All the scientific evidence supports the idea of at least adequate determinism (with quantum randomness). It is labeled “adequate” simply because it may not be complete (if any level of randomness exists), but it is a significant level of order. Either way, whether the universe is 100% deterministic or adequately deterministic combined with some level of randomness — there is still no room for classical free will (as I defined it earlier) to exist in either circumstance. Thus it isn’t a very important part of the debate to focus on. Again, both determinism and/or randomness support my position (classical free will not existing) but do nothing to help your case (unfortunately).

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          • Are you suggesting that no level of predictability exists (i.e. no level of determinism or amount of non-randomness)? If so, then you must not be looking very closely at the fields within science which show predictable results all the time. We can’t predict everything, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t predict anything. So as I asked before, please explain.

            You have a mistaken idea of how science works.

            Scientific laws are not descriptions of nature. They are theoretical models, often idealizations.

            Scientific laws are deterministic because we like our theoretical models and our idealizations to be deterministic. That they are deterministic says nothing at all about whether the world is determinstic.

            Sure, we can make predictions. But, when it all boils down, our predictions are statistical and are sometimes wrong.

            Yes, I never said it was. I said that it is EITHER deterministic or adequately deterministic with quantum randomness.

            Adequate for what? Yes, I guess there is adequate determinism to persuade you to jump to conclusions that are not supported by evidence.

            Anything less than 100% determinism is indeterminism.

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          • “You have a mistaken idea of how science works.”

            Not really.

            “Scientific laws are not descriptions of nature. They are theoretical models, often idealization.”

            True, but they are meant to describe nature the best we can. It doesn’t mean that they perfectly describe nature (hardly). A model that is a close approximation of what is happening in nature, is a type of description in my opinion.

            “Scientific laws are deterministic because we like our theoretical models and our idealizations to be deterministic. That they are deterministic says nothing at all about whether the world is determinstic.”

            Not quite. They do suggest that there is some level of determinism, or causal order at play. They do not suggest that the world is completely deterministic, but they also do not suggest that the world is completely random either.

            “Sure, we can make predictions. But, when it all boils down, our predictions are statistical and are sometimes wrong.”

            Any ability to predict at all implies that there is some level of non-randomness at play. This non-randomness is a level of determinism. I’m not sure what part of this you are failing to understand.

            “Adequate for what? Yes, I guess there is adequate determinism to persuade you to jump to conclusions that are not supported by evidence.”

            Adequate can mean “any” determinism at all (i.e. non-randomness), but the word adequate in this instance is to illustrate that we have a high level of predictability and causal order as seen around us everyday (for all practical purposes). You can pick any word you want. It doesn’t have to be “adequate” if you hate that word as well. You can say “some” instead of “adequate”, that is, the universe has some determinism, but not complete determinism, nor complete indeterminism. Our reason tells us that if it had to be one of these choices, then determinism is the only choice that makes sense to explain the order we see. If we want to fit in our QM randomness, then we must accept somewhere in between (less than 100% indeterminism). You can call it whatever you want. The facts remain the same.

            “Anything less than 100% determinism is indeterminism.”

            Technically that is correct. But when differentiating between the concept of “100% randomness”, and “less than 100% randomness”, this is where adequate determinism comes in to play. That is, there are different levels of indeterminism. We have 100% determinism and we have 100% indeterminism, OR we have some level of indeterminism in between. I believe the universe lies either at the 100% deterministic level or somewhere in between determinism and indeterminism, but it is definitely not 100% indeterministic. The science supports this view, because we see a combination of randomness and some level of causality (determinism). You can’t negate this causality because it is seen all around us, our mental faculties depend on it in order for us to make any sense at all of the world around us, and science depends on it as well. It’s undeniable in any causal chain or pattern we see. What you need to realize is that there aren’t only two possibilities that describe everything we see, rather there are shades of indeterminism (which we can call “adequate” determinism, since there is such a high degree of order observed in the universe). Adequate determinism doesn’t mean the universe is deterministic, it just means that it is not 100% indeterministic. Different shades of gray my friend.

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          • True, but they are meant to describe nature the best we can.

            Actually, they are not. They are intended as methodological tools, not as descriptions.

            We describe earth as a sphere. But we know that is false. We know that there are hills and valleys. The sphere model is particularly useful, but it is not the best possible. We could describe all of the hills, valleys, tunnels, etc if we really wanted to. But we don’t, because that would result in something too complex for theoretical use.

            And you miss the other point. A close approximation can still be deterministic, even if what it approximates is indeterministic. That scientific laws are deterministic has no implications as to whether the world is deterministic.

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          • “Actually, they are not. They are intended as methodological tools, not as descriptions.”

            They are still a type of description. They are approximations to the way things are.

            “We describe earth as a sphere. But we know that is false.”

            Yes, but describing the earth as a sphere is a description. It is an approximation. You’ve just proven my point here.

            “And you miss the other point. A close approximation can still be deterministic, even if what it approximates is indeterministic. That scientific laws are deterministic has no implications as to whether the world is deterministic.”

            The fact that scientific laws have any bearing on being able to predict action in nature, indicates that there is some level of causality (determinism) at play, even if it isn’t 100%. I don’t know why you keep overlooking this crucial detail.

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  3. It does not make sense to me, for “free will” to be given a definition that could not possibly be what most people mean when they use that expression.

    I completely agree. It smacks very much of the same kind of argument as those made by Sophisticated Theologians™.

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  4. If people intuitively feel that their memory is like a camera, does that count as evidence?
    If people intuitively feel something survives after death, does that count as evidence?
    If people intuitively feel that they make free-will choices, does that count as evidence?
    I don’t understand what you count as evidence in your last sentence?

    BTW, I don’t have an opinion about free will except that it is abundantly clear to me that if there is any, we have far less than we even begin to imagine. Pragmatically speaking, that insight alone has been life changing for me.

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    • I think you are missing the point.

      I don’t understand what you count as evidence in your last sentence?

      I am not claiming that we do have free will, nor that we don’t have free will. So I don’t need evidence since I am not making a claim.

      If Jerry Coyne wants to believe that we don’t have free will, that’s fine with me. But Jerry Coyne and other free will deniers are claiming that science proves we do not have free will and they are wrong about that. Science is silent on the question. Our concept of free will is too poorly defined to be able to reach a definitive conclusion.

      If people intuitively feel that they make free-will choices, does that count as evidence?

      The way that people talk about free will at least counts as evidence on what they mean by “free will.”

      BTW, I don’t have an opinion about free will …

      That’s a very reasonable position.

      … except that it is abundantly clear to me that if there is any, we have far less than we even begin to imagine.

      I’m not so sure about that part. You can only be sure of what you “begin to imagine” – you can’t be sure of what other people begin to imagine. Perhaps the ability to imagine is all that some people mean by “free will.”

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      • @ Neil,

        Ah, thank you. I think I see some of your points and perhaps I can offer a bit more to see if we have a disagreement or difference in perspective.

        (1) “Our concept of free will is to poorly defined to be able to reach a definitive conclusion”: I would agree that when definitions aren’t agreed on, then outcome of experiments are debatable. And I have seen a bunch of fuzziness around the notion of free-will.

        (2) I am not acquainted with Coyne’s claims but I would be suspicious, like you (it seems), of anyone who claimed “Science proves definitively there is not free will.” “Definitive” is a strong word, and so is “Prove” — but not reading Coyne, I don’t know how he states things.

        But you highlight wel our possible differences in your last paragraph.

        I first started seeing through the illusion of free-will via meditation practice. Since, then, I have a read a bit of the scientific exploration of the issue. I am happy that science is also helping to demonstrate the self-deception.

        Part of my meditation training was to watch ideas, feelings and action pop up in my mind. It quickly becomes obvious that they pop up without conscious control — even actions. And it also becomes obvious that very quickly after a thought, feeling or action is generated by the brain, it also generates the notion of ownership and intention — that is the illusion.

        Have you had these experiences? Meditation is not needed for those experiences at all, of course, this happens all the time.

        I think it is interesting to try and figure out what people mean by “free will”, just as I do for what they mean by “God”, “Freedom”, “Democracy” and much more. But I am convinced, after decades of conversations, that people (myself included), are largely deluded by what they mean in their normal, pedestrian use of the phrase “free-will”.

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        • I think I see some of your points and perhaps I can offer a bit more to see if we have a disagreement or difference in perspective.

          Well, of course we have a difference in perspective. But that is part of why arguments over free will seem so pointless. People don’t agree on what “free will” means. So we end up with people claiming to be arguing about what science proves, when they are really arguing about semantics.

          Part of my meditation training was to watch ideas, feelings and action pop up in my mind. It quickly becomes obvious that they pop up without conscious control — even actions. And it also becomes obvious that very quickly after a thought, feeling or action is generated by the brain, it also generates the notion of ownership and intention — that is the illusion.

          That’s the sort of thing that I would call “day dreaming.” Sure, I have had such experiences. However, at other times I am very much in control of my thinking, such as when I am doing mathematics or writing a computer program.

          That example of yours illustrates some of the disagreements about free will. The deniers of free will typically say that the world is deterministic or near enough to be deterministic, and therefore not free. But you illustrate why you doubt free will with an example where you see a lack of determinism resulting in a lack of your ability to control (or determine) thought as a reason to doubt free will. So your reasons for doubting free will seem to be the opposite of the reasons given by those who argue against free will.

          For myself, I have never thought that kind of day dreaming or meditation or stream of consciousness of a wandering mind had anything to do with free will.

          But I am convinced, after decades of conversations, that people (myself included), are largely deluded by what they mean in their normal, pedestrian use of the phrase “free-will”.

          I can only conclude that my ordinary pedestrian use of the phrase “free will” is very different from yours. Perhaps the expression “free will” is an illustration of Quine’s “gavagai” problem about the difficulty of learning meanings of words.

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      • “But Jerry Coyne and other free will deniers are claiming that science proves we do not have free will and they are wrong about that. Science is silent on the question. Our concept of free will is too poorly defined to be able to reach a definitive conclusion.”

        You are correct, if you also assume that Science proves nothing at all.

        If we define free will to be: “a will that is unconstrained such that a choice is not a necessity, but rather one of many possibilities that actually could have occurred in the same initial conditions — save randomness”, then science has shown us no evidence that classical free will exists, and it has shown plenty of evidence that classical free will does not exist. Science has shown that cause-effect relationships exist between anything and everything because Science relies on this as a premise for the scientific method. By using science, we are presuming this to be true if we make any conclusions at all from experimentation. Cause-effect relationships between everything implies a causal chain that relies on two things: the laws of nature (e.g. fundamental forces, flow of time, etc.) and initial conditions for all matter/energy. We have no control over these things, and science has shown that we are constituted of and a part of this causal chain out of our ultimate control.
        Science has shown that the universe is ultimately either deterministic or random because those are the only two possibilities observed within the field (and also the only two logical possibilities). Both of these possibilities are incompatible with classical free will as defined above. So perhaps science hasn’t proven that free will doesn’t exist (just as it hasn’t proven anything at all, it has only shown us various patterns of data), but most if not all of the scientific evidence suggests that classical free will doesn’t exist. I haven’t seen any scientific evidence at all that suggests that free will does exist, so it’s pretty overwhelming what the evidence within science suggests about classical free will.

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        • If we define free will to be: “a will that is unconstrained such that a choice is not a necessity, but rather one of many possibilities that actually could have occurred in the same initial conditions — save randomness”, then science has shown us no evidence that classical free will exists, and it has shown plenty of evidence that classical free will does not exist.

          If we define “free will” that way, then science has nothing to say on the issue, neither for or against. Terms such as “will”, “choice”, “possibilities that actually could have occurred” are too vague for science to address.

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          • “If we define “free will” that way, then science has nothing to say on the issue, neither for or against. Terms such as “will”, “choice”, “possibilities that actually could have occurred” are too vague for science to address.”

            I disagree. What science has to say is that there has been no evidence that this “free will” as I defined it, exists. It also has to say that there is plenty of evidence against it, since the scientific evidence suggests that the only type of relationships between systems are causal relationships or random relationships (which is true if QM randomness is ontologically the case and not just what we see on the surface). We’ve seen no other “type” of relationship between matter/energy systems. Since “free will” as I defined it depends on a non-random, non-causal origin, and science has only found random or causal relationships, the evidence in Science supports the idea that this type of free will doesn’t exist. So it has plenty to say on the issue if free will is defined that way (and that definition is necessary to isolate the main philosophical issues concerning free will). Most people care about volition, responsibility, etc., and they often want to know: Did I have control over that decision or was it a result of randomness or fate? The scientific evidence suggests that it was a result of either fate, randomness, or a combination of the two (adequate/incomplete determinism).

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          • What science has to say is that there has been no evidence that this “free will” as I defined it, exists.

            There is also no evidence that it doesn’t exist.

            It also has to say that there is plenty of evidence against it, since the scientific evidence suggests that the only type of relationships between systems are causal relationships or random relationships (which is true if QM randomness is ontologically the case and not just what we see on the surface).

            No, science does not say that. Some scientists say that. You should distinguish between what science says and what scientists say.

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          • I said: “What science has to say is that there has been no evidence that this “free will” as I defined it, exists.”

            You said: “There is also no evidence that it doesn’t exist.”

            Yes there is. I’ve explained it already. The fact that science has shown only two types of relationships between systems (causal chains or non-causal randomness) is evidence against classical free will, because both causality (determinism) and randomness (indeterminism) negate that definition of free will. So once again, there is evidence. There is however NO evidence that supports classical free will. It is one-sided Neil. It is now up to the free will proponents to provide some counter evidence to support their position. So far I’ve seen none at all.

            “No, science does not say that. Some scientists say that. You should distinguish between what science says and what scientists say.”

            Do you think science says anything at all? If so, give me some examples so I can use your reasoning to prove my point. I’m all ears. Let’s see some examples of what science says or has said.

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          • The fact that science has shown only two types of relationships between systems (causal chains or non-causal randomness) is evidence against classical free will, …

            But that is not a fact. It is false. Everything has infinitely many contributing causes, and in turn contributes as a partial cause for infinitely many future events. The “causal chain” idea is simplistic nonsense.

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          • “But that is not a fact. It is false. Everything has infinitely many contributing causes, and in turn contributes as a partial cause for infinitely many future events. The “causal chain” idea is simplistic nonsense.”

            No it is a fact. All those “infinitely many contributing causes” are linked to everything else. The causal chain (i.e. cause and effect) is what we observe in our scientific experiments and in our everyday lives. It may be simplistic to call it one single thing, but that is because it is easier than saying “everything’s infinitely many contributing causes and effects”. The causal chain is the totality of all causes and effects, whether there is an infinite number or not. Science shows that every cause has an effect (save quantum randomness). To deny causality (the causal chain) is to deny that cause-effect relationships exist which negates what we are doing with science all the time. The scientific method involves controlling some variable (modifying a cause) to see what different effects it has on the object of experimentation.

            In theory, save quantum randomness, the more data we obtain, the better we can predict what is going to happen in the future. If I know basic laws of physics and I look at a roller coaster’s motion, I can predict it’s motion along the track with a high degree of accuracy. If matter and energy in the universe follow these fundamental forces we’ve discovered, they too move and respond in predictable ways. This is what science has shown. If things move in repeatable, predictable ways, then there is some level of determinism (or to please you, some level of indeterminism that is less than 100%).

            More importantly, you’ve missed the main point of the debate here and that is that randomness does nothing to support the case of classical free will existing for if everything is random, then we have no control over the choices we make (they are random). If the universe is deterministic, we also have no control over the choices we make (they are fixed). You want to quibble about nomenclature and over details that still do nothing to support the case for classical free will. You can write a post that addresses these details (what science says, how a causal chain is simplistic nonsense, etc.), but they have nothing to do with supporting an argument over the existence of classical free will.

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  5. “At other times, I am very much in control of my thinking”
    — this is debatable and depends on what you mean by “I” and “control”.

    Yeah, you are correct, this is difficult stuff.

    Have you ever felt yourself physically doing something that looks conscious but you realized later was not conscious at all?

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    • Have you ever felt yourself physically doing something that looks conscious but you realized later was not conscious at all?

      I sometimes get to work, and wonder how I got there with no memory of seeing the landmarks that I should have passed along the way.

      “Consciousness” is another of those words where we can never be sure what other people mean.

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  6. “He starts by asserting that we have no free will. And then Coyne asks his readers which of two options they would choose.”

    When people use the word “choose”, it has nothing to do with classical free will. It only refers to people executing their decision-making algorithms and heuristics in order to choose between multiple options (based on that algorithm and those heuristics). Executing algorithms and utilizing heuristics has nothing to do with classical free will.

    “Then Coyne goes ahead and exercises his own free will, by choosing the first of those options.”

    As I’ve said to you before in the past when you mentioned the same thing, nobody is exercising classical free will when they choose an option, as they use algorithms and heuristics previously programmed in order to make said choices — much like a computer is programmed to do. If you want to define “Free will” differently from classical free will, and label it as the act of making pre-determined or random choices, then fine. I don’t see the point. It has nothing to do with classical free will.

    “I guess I still have that quaint old fashioned idea that scientists are supposed to go by evidence. And the evidence is that people spend much of their time making choices.”

    Yes but the evidence suggests that people are making choices for pre-determined reasons such as their unconscious mind, algorithms and heuristics the brain has been conditioned or genetically pre-disposed to use, etc. They are not classical choices according to the evidence we do have. All evidence points to determinism (or at least adequate determinism combined with quantum randomness which may be ontologically random or not). Either way, there is no room for classically free choices to be made. If you claim that there is scientific evidence suggesting that we have free will, then please share the source with me. It seems to me that we experience a subjective/introspective feeling of having free will (this is the illusion due to exclusivity, priority, and consistency seen in the cause-effect relationships between our thoughts and actions). The bulk of the scientific evidence suggests that we have no classical free will, even if we utilize decision-making programming as a computer does.

    It’s really not silly to deny (classical) free will when all the scientific evidence supports that skeptic position.

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    • As I’ve said to you before in the past when you mentioned the same thing, nobody is exercising classical free will when …

      There’s no such thing as “classical free will”. Debates about free will, and what it is, go back hundreds of years.

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      • “There’s no such thing as “classical free will”. Debates about free will, and what it is, go back hundreds of years.”

        Classical free will refers to an ontologically free will, that is, it refers to actually having the freedom of making more than one “willed” actuality given the same initial conditions (i.e. it negates determinism and/or randomness). It suggests that people will their own actions in a “causa sui” manner. There are multiple definitions of free will, but the “classical” version (causa sui) is the only significant version within philosophical debates on free will (those that go back centuries). All other definitions that do not rely on the truth or falsity of determinism do not address the most crucial issue within the free will debates.

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        • Classical free will refers to an ontologically free will, that is, it refers to actually having the freedom of making more than one “willed” actuality given the same initial conditions (i.e. it negates determinism and/or randomness).

          Sigh!

          I said that X does not mean anything, and that people have been arguing over its meaning for hundreds of years.

          You reply that X means something very specific, namely, X means Y.

          The trouble with your response is that Y doesn’t mean anything, and people have been arguing over what it means for hundreds of years.

          You are playing an pointless word game.

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          • Neil,

            “Sigh! I said that X does not mean anything, and that people have been arguing over its meaning for hundreds of years.”

            Wrong. People have been arguing over what type of free will we have, not over its definition. The truth is, there are multiple definitions for the term, so there is no need for any argument over definitions. The argument has to do with which definition fits our current state of affairs.

            “The trouble with your response is that Y doesn’t mean anything, and people have been arguing over what it means for hundreds of years.”

            No, “Y” does have a meaning and I explained what that was, and I’ll do so once more:
            “Y” (as you put it) is a state of affairs whereby when a choice is made by a cognitive agent, another choice could have been made by the same agent given the same initial conditions. It’s pretty cut and dried.

            “You are playing an pointless word game.”

            This statement of yours just points out Coyne’s: “b). You spend time concocting new definitions of “free will” to replace the ghost-in-the-machine “contracausal” free will that no longer holds.” If anything, saying that free will denial is silly by changing the definition of “free will” is a pointless word game. It is a game that can end if we can all agree on this classical definition of “free will” for the purpose of the free will argument. Otherwise changing the definition negates the original argument and has little substance. For example, if you say “free will” is just the ability to make choices (even if they are not free), then fine — we have free will in that sense. I just find that pointless when we consider the root of the free will debates, which is to determine if our choices could have been executed differently or not. That is where the classical definition comes into play.

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          • Wrong. People have been arguing over what type of free will we have, not over its definition. The truth is, there are multiple definitions for the term, so there is no need for any argument over definitions. The argument has to do with which definition fits our current state of affairs.

            This is pretty much empty rhetoric.

            No, “Y” does have a meaning and I explained what that was, and I’ll do so once more:
            “Y” (as you put it) is a state of affairs whereby when a choice is made by a cognitive agent, another choice could have been made by the same agent given the same initial conditions. It’s pretty cut and dried.

            Okay, fair enough.

            I read that as saying:

            “I haven’t a clue on what I am talking about. But I will just use expressions such as “state of affairs” which are meaninglessly vague, and hope that nobody notices that I haven’t a clue.”

            You continue with:

            This statement of yours just points out Coyne’s: “b). You spend time concocting new definitions of “free will” to replace the ghost-in-the-machine “contracausal” free will that no longer holds.”

            I don’t think I have ever concocted any definition of free will. However, if you look back at all of Jerry Coyne’s postings on the subject, you may find that he has come up with several different definitions of “free will” that are mutually inconsistent.

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          • “This is pretty much empty rhetoric.”

            No not really. There is a clear difference between “arguing over what a definition is”, and “arguing over which definition best fits our reality”. If you see that as empty rhetoric, then you clearly don’t see the difference.

            “I read that as saying: “I haven’t a clue on what I am talking about. But I will just use expressions such as “state of affairs” which are meaninglessly vague, and hope that nobody notices that I haven’t a clue.” ”

            I gave you a clear definition. You honestly read that as me having no clue? I have at least given a definition and you have given none.

            My definition of classical free will, once again, was:
            “Y” (as you put it) is a state of affairs whereby when a choice is made by a cognitive agent, another choice could have been made by the same agent given the same initial conditions. It’s pretty cut and dried.

            If you really have an issue with terms like “state of affairs” then I’ll remove it so that I can use terms that are less vague:
            Free will: a will to make decisions, specifically such that another choice could have been chosen (greater than 0% probability) given the same initial conditions.

            “I don’t think I have ever concocted any definition of free will. However, if you look back at all of Jerry Coyne’s postings on the subject, you may find that he has come up with several different definitions of “free will” that are mutually inconsistent.”

            Admittedly, I have not read all of Coyne’s postings on the subject, nor have I read his various definitions which may in fact be mutually exclusive. I will take your word for it. Either way, I recommend coming up with or agreeing upon a definition if you are going to discuss the topic at all. You say it is silly to deny free will, yet you seem to not quite have an opinion of what it is (other than that it is different from the definition I use, which avoids the purpose of the argument altogether).

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          • My definition of classical free will, once again, was:
            “Y” (as you put it) is a state of affairs whereby when a choice is made by a cognitive agent, another choice could have been made by the same agent given the same initial conditions. It’s pretty cut and dried.

            Define “state of affairs”.

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          • “State of affairs” is the combination of circumstances at a particular time. I would ignore this term for now as it is less important than “free will”, “determinism”, “necessity”, “possibility”, “fate”, etc. Those are the types of terms that we all need to focus on within this debate.

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  7. I’ll add that of the two “choices” Coyne asked readers to choose:

    a). Realizing that physical determinacy has profound implications for punishment and moral responsibility (after all, our justice system must take note, as it already does to some extent, of the fact that a criminal could not have chosen otherwise when doing a crime; and how is one “morally” responsible if one can’t do otherwise?), you ponder and then write about what should be done in the light of neuroscience, suggesting reforms of the penal system and new ways to think about “moral responsibility.”

    b). You spend time concocting new definitions of “free will” to replace the ghost-in-the-machine “contracausal” free will that no longer holds.

    You appear to have chosen option ‘b’. Coyne said that option ‘b’ “is a complete waste of time. I am mystified that most philosophers choose b.” I agree with Coyne and am likewise mystified by various philosophers who attempt to redefine the word in the hopes of saving or solving some problem. It does neither. It only shifts the argument away from the original position/assertion and then loses all meaning. Compatibilists are guilty of this to the nth degree, because the only way I’ve seen them reconcile “free will” with determinism is to negate the “classical” version of the term. In other words, within the “free will” debates, the definition most agree upon is that of “classical free will” (i.e. if we made a choice, we could have chosen differently given the same initial conditions). So redefining the word detracts from this very specific meaning thus ignoring the purpose of the argument.

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    • You appear to have chosen option ‘b’.

      No, not at all.

      I see both ‘a’ and ‘b’ as a waste of time. And I see Jerry Coyne as taking a position that is inherently self-contradictory.

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      • “I see both ‘a’ and ‘b’ as a waste of time.”

        Option ‘A’ addresses our motivations for criminal corrections, punishments, etc. It may not change the number of dangerous people that are behind bars now, but it can change our motivations and mentality behind the system itself. Right now many people assume that criminals had a choice to avoid the crimes they committed, and likewise they see punishments as a form of justice for those that voluntarily broke the rules — but having no free will turns that assumption onto its head. It means that we need to look at criminals in a different light, and invest more resources in a nurturing childhood environment rather than pumping more dollars into the correctional system. Correction is almost too late for most when it is implemented far after the damage has been done. Acknowledging this can make a difference even if you’re skeptical.

        “And I see Jerry Coyne as taking a position that is inherently self-contradictory.”

        I don’t understand how his position is self-contradictory. Can you explain? In doing so, please keep in mind the stipulation I made between “classical free will” and other variants.

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        • Sorry to be butting in, but…

          It means that we need to look at criminals in a different light, and invest more resources in a nurturing childhood environment rather than pumping more dollars into the correctional system.

          Which would imply that we can choose to do so or not. Which implies, by the commonly understood meaning of the phrase, that we have free will with which to make that choice.

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          • Daz,

            You said: “…Which would imply that we can choose to do so or not. Which implies, by the commonly understood meaning of the phrase, that we have free will with which to make that choice.”

            You need to read my previous comment to Neil which explains why you are wrong here and clearly missing the point.
            As I said to Neil, “nobody is exercising classical free will when they choose an option, as they use algorithms and heuristics previously programmed in order to make said choices — much like a computer is programmed to do.”

            What this means is that we have no free will just because we are “choosing” something. Those choices are based on pre-determined (or random) causes including our genes, environmental influences (which includes the data and information that surrounds us). They are not self-caused by us, for that would make us somehow above the causal chain of the universe. However, as I just mentioned the data and information that we come into contact with will affect our pre-determined “choices” in that they are a part of the causal chain. So by people accepting new information (re-examining the penal system or our criminal correctional motivations), this is information that will guide us. You may be making the mistake of assuming that the idea of illusionism is the same as Nihilism. It is not.

            Also the “commonly understood meaning of the phrase” (free will) is the classical definition, that is, that we actually have the freedom to make a choice, and one that we could have made differently in the exact same circumstances. Even we don’t accept this as the “commonly understood meaning of the phrase”, then it loses all potency and becomes synonymous with liberty, freedom, etc., which are words that have some overlap with free will, but are not as fundamental in these debates.

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        • I don’t understand how his position is self-contradictory.

          Your own position, which you have just given in the comment to which I am replying, is self-contradictory. And Daz has already explained why, in his reply. (Thanks, Daz).

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          • “Your own position, which you have just given in the comment to which I am replying, is self-contradictory. An Daz has already explained why, in his reply. (Thanks, Daz).”

            Explain how it is contradictory. I’ve read no explanation thus far. I rebutted Daz’s position on the issue so that argument is invalid. If you argument is exactly the same, then read my rebuttal to Daz and you’ll see why it misses the point of “classical free will” (that a choice is not necessary, but one of many possibilities that actually could have occurred in the same initial conditions — save randomness).

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          • Explain how it is contradictory.

            Daz already explained it well.

            It is my experience that many deniers of free will make self-contradictory claims. And when this is pointed out to them, they are unable to see the contradiction.

            I rebutted Daz’s position on the issue so that argument is invalid.

            I’m calling your “rebuttal” a fail.

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          • I asked you to “Explain how it is contradictory.”

            You replied with “Daz already explained it well.” As I said before, I already rebutted her argument. I’d like your to give your own explanation as to the following:

            “It is my experience that many deniers of free will make self-contradictory claims. And when this is pointed out to them, they are unable to see the contradiction.”

            Explain how my belief that free will is an illusion is a self-contradictory claim. Explain how any of my beliefs or claims (out of my control but illusorily in my control) are self-contradictory. I’m all ears.

            “I’m calling your “rebuttal” a fail.”

            Calling my rebuttal a fail does not help your case nor negate the validity of the rebuttal. It still stands. If a counter-rebuttal is given, we can analyze its validity piece by piece.

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  8. Lage

    So, if I read you right (and I will admit to playing somewhat out of my league, as regards the history and nomenclature of the subject), you’re saying that it feels like free will and it looks like free will, but it isn’t free will?

    I’d hate to descend to the level of talking about duck-ish appearance here, but…

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    • Daz,

      Exactly. It feels like free will, but it is not. The simple reason our will is not truly “free” is because the choices we make couldn’t have happened any other non-random way (if they are indeed a part of a continuous causal chain which physics and the natural sciences suggest). This is why it is not free. I think the main problem is that most people are afraid of this actuality, so they deny it because they are more comfortable believing they are the only people responsible for their decisions, when in fact it is the causal chain that precedes them that is responsible — let a lone a causal chain that we had no control over. This is why I am an illusionist. I believe in the illusion of free will because it is quite obviously there (as an illusion). We all feel that we are making decisions of our own volition everyday, but if they could only have been made one way, then this classical freedom does not exist. Determinism (or randomness) negates this freedom and science has been pointing in the direction of determinism (and/or quantum randomness) for many years now. It’s pretty obvious that our will is not free by the classical definition I’ve given because it would mean that we as human beings would have to have causa sui decision making which is ridiculous and unfounded (let alone logically inconsistent). Bottom line, free will (the definition or version that actually matters in this debate) is an illusion. We may have liberties, or some obvious levels of unconstrained decision making, but the levels of constraint we recognize or look for are incomplete. The causal chain is the most fundamental constraint we have in a deterministic universe. If people accept that all decisions are a part of a non-breakable causal chain just like all other processes in the universe that we are aware of, then they must also accept that their decisions couldn’t have happened any other way.

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  9. I’m hoping it will be “pertinent but uncontroversial” to mention that I agree completely that we find evidence all around us (including in the complaints of incompatibilists like Coyne) that we make choices all the time.

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