On Jerry Coyne on free will

by Neil Rickert

Jerry Coyne has yet another post on the topic of free will, which he thinks we do not have.

There are some points in that post that warrant a reply, so this will be my response.

Am I banned?

Normally, I would respond by posting a comment at Coyne’s site.  However, my last few attempts to comment there have failed.  It sure looks as if Coyne has banned me from commenting, though I have no idea why.  Yes, I have disagreed with Coyne in the past, but I have never been belligerent or excessively argumentative in that disagreement.  It is Coyne’s site, so within his rights to ban me.  But it seems surprising.

A point of agreement

I’ll start with a point where I agree with Coyne.  His opening paragraph reads:

One of the recurrent arguments made by free-will “compatibilists” (i.e., those who see free will as being compatible with physical determinism), is that those of us who are incompatibilists—in my case, I think people conceive of free will as reflecting a dualistic “ghost in the brain,” and find that incompatible with the determinism that governs our behavior—is this: “Nobody really believes in dualistic free will—the sense that one could have done otherwise. Thus, invoking your kind of incompatibilism is accepting a form of free will that nobody espouses.  So why bother to beat a dead horse?”

Coyne disagrees with that claim that nobody believes in dualistic free will.  And Coyne is right about that.  I’ve seen many online discussions of free will.  And there are always some folk to accept the compatibilist conception, and there seem to always be others who reject it.  And of those who reject the compatibilist conception, some do believe that they have free will.

For myself, I think a lot of the disagreement between people, is just a disagreement on what they mean by “free will”.  Neither “free will” nor “determinism” (is the sense used here) is well defined.

A point of disagreement

Now let’s move to a point where I believe Coyne has reached a wrong conclusion.  He discusses a study where students were presented with two hypothetical universes, and asked which better describes our universe:

One of these studies, cited by Sarkissian et al., was done by Nichols and Knobe (2007, reference below). In the first part of their studies they presented the students with two different kinds of universes: Universe A is fully deterministic and Universe B is indeterministic insofar as decision-making occurs. That is, in Universe B, but not A, people could have chosen otherwise at any point when they must make a decision:

Please check Coyne’s post for a quote from the study.  Coyne then describes the results, with:

Nearly all participants in that study (I haven’t read it, but presume they were American college students), chose “B”: the indeterminstic universe. In other words, the vast majority of people believed in dualistic free will and were indeterminists about decisions.

That’s just a wrong conclusion.  I give you myself as an example.  If I were asked which kind of universe, I would respond “B” (the non-deterministic universe).  The best evidence from physics is that the world is not deterministic.  So, for me “B” is the best answer.  Nevertheless, I am a compatibilist.  I take the compatibilist conception of free will to be the appropriate one.

According to Coyne, if I see “B” as the best answer, I must not be a compatibilist.  He is clearly mistaken about that.

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37 Comments to “On Jerry Coyne on free will”

  1. 1. Yes, you’re banned. In my case, at least Coyne had the courtesy of manufacturing a post-hoc rule to justify it, but from what I seen he’s quick to ban people for no particularly good reason, and he doesn’t bother to mention who or why.

    2. I disagree with your agreement. I think most compatibilists recognize that the “common person” will claim to be an incompatibilist. Those of us who have taught Intro to Philosophy know well that most students come to the topic thinking that incompatibilism is true by definition.

    However, the compatibilist argues that these libertarian intuitions can be excised from the core concepts of freedom and moral responsibility. What’s doing the real work we argue is an underlying notion of voluntary action.

    3. Yeah, it’s hard to pin down the sort of determinism that is relevant for the free will debate. But notice that the description of Universe B says that the only exceptions determinism are the choices of agents. Presumably you (as a compatibilist) don’t think that choices are different from other physical processes in this respect.

    (It’s also worth noting that some libertarians, like Kane, would also say that there’s nothing exceptionally indeterministic about our choices.)

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  2. Nobody believes in libertarian free will; it’s incoherent. Choosing implies the existence of a reason to distinguish between two options in principle. The rest is moot.

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  3. By the way, if you want to be able to comment at WEIT, you could consider dropping Coyne an e-mail. No guarantees that it won’t be ignored of course, but I think I recall having heard of some cases of people getting unbanned. I seem to have successfully posted over there under my real name, which is supposed to be in compliance with his “rulz”. I don’t expect the tolerance to last forever, though.

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    • Thanks for the suggestion. I might do that.

      I’ve only ever posted there under my real name. However, the email address that I use is a random string, to foil the dictionary spammers. It’s possible that he objected to that.

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  4. “That’s just a wrong conclusion. I give you myself as an example. If I were asked which kind of universe, I would respond “B” (the non-deterministic universe). The best evidence from physics is that the world is not deterministic. So, for me “B” is the best answer. Nevertheless, I am a compatibilist.”

    I think you misread Jerry Coyne’s article. If you read the details of the study, the specific question was “Which of these universes do you think is most like ours?”

    Answer “A” was a completely deterministic universe.
    Answer “B” was a near-deterministic universe with the exception of one indeterminism, namely, human decision making.

    After noting that most students chose option “B”, Jerry goes on to say “In other words, the vast majority of people believed in dualistic free will and were indeterminists about decisions.”

    This is a correct conclusion as far as I can tell, because Universe “B” implies that everything is causally deterministic EXCEPT for human decision making (which would thus be “causa sui”). This does in fact describe a dualist position on free will (since the mind is presumed to be separate from the physical causal chain of determinism that applies to everything else). You may be confusing Universe “B” with the more general type of indeterminism suggested by quantum physics, but this isn’t the scenario outlined in the study discussed in Jerry’s post. The type of universe that you think we have according to the current findings in quantum physics would have to be a third option not discussed in this post, Universe “C”. Universe “C” would be a universe with nothing at all deterministic (including but not limited to human decision making). Universe “C” wouldn’t limit indeterminism to merely human decision making, but rather to every physical event in the universe.

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    • Answer “A” was a completely deterministic universe.
      Answer “B” was a near-deterministic universe with the exception of one indeterminism, namely, human decision making.

      So the students are required to select from a false dichotomy, and you really think that their actual views can be determined from that choice?

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      • “So the students are required to select from a false dichotomy, and you really think that their actual views can be determined from that choice?”

        In this instance the students were asked to choose which universe fit their preconceptions (even if these aren’t the only two possibilities, although I wouldn’t call it a false dichotomy per se, not unless the questioner implied that these were the only actual possibilities in our universe). Based on how the questions were worded to the students, it can be reasonably inferred that their answers implied that they were “decision indeterminists”, “adequate determinists” (i.e. everything else other than human decisions are causally determined), and dualist proponents.

        I am NOT confident that the student’s actual overall views (which may be more complicated than the choices provided can account for) can be entirely determined from their answers. Then again, I also think that many people don’t know what they believe or know that they have conflicting beliefs (and that this is part of why the results depended on how the questions were asked). For example, there are many determinists and indeterminists out there that believe that they have classical free will, although classical free will is incompatible with either determinism or indeterminism. There are people out there that may have not connected these two propositions together (determinism and free will and/or moral responsibility) and thus have failed to recognize that their own beliefs contradict. I also do not know how “moral responsibility” is being defined in this study which is an important issue to consider, when we have to assume how the students interpreted such a term. It seems that “moral responsibility” precludes free will off the bat (in many people’s definitions), which then implies that it’s certainly not something we ever have in our reality. On the other hand, if moral responsibility is given more of a pragmatic definition and function, that is, to imply that we assume that people are responsible for their actions (in a strictly causal sense) such that we can justifiably implement a punishment/reward system simply because it works well for decreasing problematic behavior in society and maximizing happiness (based on our evolved and learned responses to such rewards and deterrents), then in that sense, “moral responsibility” is a term that has more applicable meaning to our world.

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      • “In this instance the students were asked to choose which universe fit their preconceptions”

        I made an error in this sentence and should have written:

        “In this instance the students were asked to choose which universe fit their preconceptions BEST”

        since the question asked to the students was:
        “Which of these universes do you think is MOST like ours?”

        FYI.

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        • We are still back at the original problem. I would have picked B, even though I am a compatibilist.

          Sure, I don’t think B is a correct description. But I see it as closer than A, because it at least allows some indeterminism.

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          • “We are still back at the original problem. I would have picked B, even though I am a compatibilist.”

            The reason why I commented was because you saw Jerry Coyne as coming to an incorrect conclusion based on the results of the students answers. I was merely pointing out that you likely misread what he wrote, since what he wrote (his inference) was perfectly in line with the results of the study.

            “Sure, I don’t think B is a correct description. But I see it as closer than A, because it at least allows some indeterminism.”

            Would you say that you’d choose “B” primarily because you want to allow for some indeterminism (how you see the universe as per your inference of quantum physical findings) or because you want to allow for free will (as per the acausal human decision making contingency)?

            It seems that the choice you would have made, if you could, would have been a universe that is fundamentally random which would still have no free will. So I’m trying to gather which factor you are most concerned about retaining, the free will, or the indeterminism — since the latter negates the first. You also claim to be a compatibilist, but compatibilism doesn’t really address the classical free will debate, since it generally modifies the definition of free will to something other than the classical version (which then becomes a moot point).

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          • Would you say that you’d choose “B” primarily because you want to allow for some indeterminism (how you see the universe as per your inference of quantum physical findings) or because you want to allow for free will (as per the acausal human decision making contingency)?

            I see us as living in a world where people do science. Part of doing science, is doing critical testing to identify causation.

            To me, it seems completely implausible, that doing science is possible in a deterministic world.

            Quite apart from that, I do not see any evidence at all to suggest that the world (i.e. the universe) is deterministic. I understand some people reach that conclusion from the determinism of scientific laws. But I so no implication from the determinism of scientific laws to a deterministic universe.

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          • “To me, it seems completely implausible, that doing science is possible in a deterministic world.”

            Why on Earth would this be?

            If our doing science is a part of a causal chain, then wherein lies the implausability? Doing anything at all is equally plausible in a deterministic world, so long as the deterministic laws of physics in that world lead to the proper causal chain. Our causal chain appeared to lead to the evolution of what we call life, up to and including self-aware human beings with a curiosity worth satisfying by doing Science (for mere curiosity as well as for pragmatic reasons).

            Doing science in order to identify causation implies that the universe has been set to try and know itself (in one way or another). By the laws of physics leading to the evolution of self-aware/conscious/curious entities, that don’t know EVERY law of causation instinctually (although an intuitive physics has evolved to differing degrees in different animals), Science is a way for us to learn of that causal deterministic structure — something that other animals haven’t been capable of facilitating. In theory, any scenario you can think of, including “humans doing Science” is plausible in a deterministic world, because Determinism is not limited by what specific scenario is possible, but rather that all events are fixed to happen one way (regardless of whether or not any Laws of physics with predictable powers can be determined). The only class of scenarios that are not possible in a completely deterministic world would be any indeterministic scenarios. Science by definition can’t be indeterministic, for it if were, we wouldn’t be able to learn any causal relationships in Nature which is what the main purpose/function of Science is — to learn about causal relationships in nature.

            “Quite apart from that, I do not see any evidence at all to suggest that the world (i.e. the universe) is deterministic. I understand some people reach that conclusion from the determinism of scientific laws. But I so no implication from the determinism of scientific laws to a deterministic universe.”

            The fact that scientific laws describe nature in the sense of predicting natural events implies that the properties of those scientific laws have some bearing on the properties of the universe they are describing. While this doesn’t necessarily imply that we have a deterministic universe, the fact that we have a well-defined causal structure as witnessed in our day-to-lives, is evidence in favor of determinism.

            “But I so no implication from the determinism of scientific laws to a deterministic universe”

            And yet you do see an implication from the indeterminism of scientific findings (quantum mechanical) to an indeterministic universe? This does not follow.

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          • If our doing science is a part of a causal chain, then wherein lies the implausability?

            That’s exactly equivalent to saying “If god did it, wherein lies the implausibility.” You have eliminated science, and replaced it with theology. You have made science an illusion. We think we are doing science, but we are just part of a causal chain and not actually doing anything.

            And yet you do see an implication from the indeterminism of scientific findings (quantum mechanical) to an indeterministic universe? This does not follow.

            I don’t recall ever claiming that is an implication. It is only supportive evidence.

            Several years ago, in a usenet discussion, I recall saying that there never could be convincing evidence of determinism, and there never could be convincing evidence of indeterminism. I still hold that view.

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          • “That’s exactly equivalent to saying “If god did it, wherein lies the implausibility.”

            I’m not sure what you mean here.

            “You have eliminated science, and replaced it with theology.”

            I’m not sure where you gathered this. Theology is the study of God(s) and religious truths. Science is the study of nature in general. How exactly is the presumption that events follow a deterministic causal chain replacing science with theology?

            “You have made science an illusion.”

            I haven’t made science an illusion, unless you assume that science can only be done under certain ontological circumstances. Science is just as real to us whether or not determinism is the case. Science is the study of nature and if nature is operating on deterministic causal principles, then our studies in science will merely illustrate that this is the case. It doesn’t make the science any less real than anything else in the universe. Love is just as real, questions and answers are just as real, dogs, cats, and building a house are just as real. I have no problem with saying that everything is an illusion (in at least some sense), but then calling Science an illusion is just a moot point. For all practical purposes, its real, because it is a part of our reality.

            “We think we are doing science, but we are just part of a causal chain and not actually doing anything.”

            That’s simply ridiculous, unless you define “doing” as something only accomplishable by a classically free willed agent. If that is the case, then whether or not the universe is deterministic or random (indeterministic), we are not capable of doing anything. So whether you are a determinist, or an indeterminist, classical free will can’t exist, and so no matter which position you hold, by your rationale you seem to think that science doesn’t exist and has been replaced by theology. What exactly is your reasoning here? Could you explain how you came to your conclusion, and explain how your belief of an indeterministic universe would be any different in regards to the fate of science being real or not? I think you may be confused on a few matters.

            “Several years ago, in a usenet discussion, I recall saying that there never could be convincing evidence of determinism, and there never could be convincing evidence of indeterminism. I still hold that view.”

            Fair enough. Yet you have said:
            “If I were asked which kind of universe, I would respond “B” (the non-deterministic universe). The best evidence from physics is that the world is not deterministic. So, for me “B” is the best answer.”

            I would say that you clearly value that scientific evidence in your decision of which universe is likely to be the case. As well, using science to determine physical laws in the universe and a causal structure is evidence for determinism that counters your decision. You seem to value scientific evidence when it suits your position, and ignore it when it doesn’t. If you think I’m incorrect here, then tell me: What makes the evidence for indeterminism that you’ve inferred any better or more valuable in your decision than the plethora of causal evidence for determinism illustrated by scientific laws with predictive power? Don’t you think that it is fair to say that our entire foundation for rational thought, decision making, consciousness, our resultant actions, etc., relies on a causal structure in the universe? If that’s the case, then it is strong evidence for determinism, even if not convincing evidence. The burden of proof lies on you to explain why you think evidence for indeterminism outweighs the evidence for determinism.

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          • How exactly is the presumption that events follow a deterministic causal chain replacing science with theology?

            It seems to suggest that everything that happens, including every scientific discovery, is part of the working out of a grand design. It’s the creationist’s “fine tuning” and “front end loading” combined.

            I would say that you clearly value that scientific evidence in your decision of which universe is likely to be the case.

            I mentioned it, because it is supporting evidence. But I would reach the same conclusion, even if I knew nothing of QM. Instead of saying “the best evidence from physics”, I could have said “the best evidence from everyday experience.”

            As well, using science to determine physical laws in the universe and a causal structure is evidence for determinism that counters your decision.

            My view of science is probably very different from yours.

            If some construction workers are repairing a building, they erect scaffolding.

            If a worker want to do extensive manicuring of a tree, he might erect scaffolding.

            The scaffolding is rigid in both cases, even though the tree is not rigid (it can sway in the wind). We use rigid scaffolding, because that’s the best kind of scaffolding.

            I see scientific laws as a kind of scaffolding that we use to study the world. That the laws are deterministic, is equivalent saying that it is a rigid scaffolding. So the I see the determinism of scientific laws has having no implication for the world being deterministic, just as the use of a rigid scaffolding for work on a tree has no implications for the rigidity of the tree.

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          • Neil,

            “It seems to suggest that everything that happens, including every scientific discovery, is part of the working out of a grand design. It’s the creationist’s “fine tuning” and “front end loading” combined.”

            Actually, it depends on a person’s specific interpretation of the metaphysics behind the determinism. For example, in the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics, the world is deterministic, and every conceivable outcome has existed already or is co-existing with our current outcome (in some unreachable world and/or dimension). In other words, every possibility is realized which means there needs be no grand design. The laws of physics would be unique and fixed in every iteration of every existent world, but there would be an infinite number of worlds and thus an infinite number of sets of unique laws of physics with different physical constants and properties. There would likely even be an infinite number of worlds with unstable laws of physics that are constantly changing within those individual worlds.

            A similar version of this interpretation, albeit irrelevant to quantum mechanics is the possibility that only one universe exists at any point in time, but there are an infinite number of universes that exist back to back in time from all eternity past to all eternity future. Each time a universe undergoes a Big Bang / Big Crunch cycle (or some mechanism that allows for consecutive creation/destruction of what we define to be “universes”), the laws of physics within each iteration can be different even if only slightly different, thus allowing every possibility once again to precipitate (albeit in a serial-temporal way as opposed to the parallel-temporal way in the MWI of QM).

            Even if the universe was indeterministic, it would be equally plausible that this randomness be a part of a grand design. In the latter case, the grand design is randomness (perhaps but not necessarily within some boundaries). So your case doesn’t hold water, that is, determinism is no more or less qualified than indeterminism to fit a grand design. No explanation exists for our cosmology that negates their being properties that exist. As anyone could say “These properties that exist must have come from somewhere, right?” Some people, such as myself, label the source of those properties as a grand designer or “God”. I would be considered an atheist by most standards, so the “God” I speak of is not the same “God” that most people speak of (its more like my conception of God is equated with any and all laws of existence and change), but the point I’m trying to make is that there is no explanation, indeterministic, deterministic, or otherwise that negates the possibility of a grand designer. Any grand designer could fathomably create a universe with any number of properties or characteristics. The anthropic principle implies that if the MWI interpretation of QM (or any similar theory that postulates an infinite number of worlds, each a little different) is correct, we would expect one of those worlds to be exactly like ours (with humans eventually evolving from previous ancestors, eventually creating science, and experiencing what we are experiencing right at this moment).

            “I mentioned it, because it is supporting evidence. But I would reach the same conclusion, even if I knew nothing of QM. Instead of saying “the best evidence from physics”, I could have said “the best evidence from everyday experience.””

            How do you gather that your hypothesis of an indeterministic universe is the best choice based on “the best evidence from everyday experience”? Especially when the bulk of everyday experience consists of executing actions (perception to thought to action, etc.) in a causal chain?

            “I see scientific laws as a kind of scaffolding that we use to study the world. That the laws are deterministic, is equivalent saying that it is a rigid scaffolding. So the I see the determinism of scientific laws has having no implication for the world being deterministic, just as the use of a rigid scaffolding for work on a tree has no implications for the rigidity of the tree.”

            In order for your analogy to be proper, to get to the crux of the pragmatism afforded by science, you would need to explain how the rigid scaffolding provided a form of predictive power of the properties of the tree. If “work on the tree” is equated with “work on the world”, this implies that our work on the tree is to find out more about the tree (not to merely prune it for example). This would mean that the rigid scaffold of science would be better than a less rigid one in finding out more about the tree. If the tool we are using to find out about the world has some property, then that has a bearing on the properties of the world it is studying. If we use an optical tool like a microscope to look at something, that implies that some properties of the microscope or how it works (its ability to transmit or optically distort light to form an image for example) are ingrained in the properties of the object being observed (the object reflects light so that its image can be distorted or transferred elsewhere). Otherwise it wouldn’t be a useful tool to gain new predictive information about the object (if they didn’t have properties in common). The properties of the things we use to study the world, if effective at increasing predictive power of that world, imply that there is overlap between the properties of the object being studied and the properties of the instrument that we are studying it with (be it an actual instrument, a physical law, etc.).

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          • Actually, it depends on a person’s specific interpretation of the metaphysics behind the determinism.

            Metaphysics is to be avoided. It will lead you astray.

            Especially when the bulk of everyday experience consists of executing actions (perception to thought to action, etc.) in a causal chain?

            Your metaphysics has led you astray.

            The bulk of everyday experience is of us making decisions. These are often decisions, informed by perception, to initiate actions.

            In order for your analogy to be proper, …

            That last paragraph is mostly nonsense. I really suggest you try to avoid metaphysics.

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          • “Metaphysics is to be avoided. It will lead you astray.”

            Your assumption that determinism implies a grand designer, and indeterminism doesn’t, can only be grounded on metaphysical assumptions. So then take your own advice, as it appears to have led you astray.

            “Your metaphysics has led you astray.”

            On the contrary, it appears that your metaphysical assumptions have led you astray. I don’t necessarily hold the metaphysical assumptions I’ve mentioned in the last post. I just brought them up to illustrate how your reasoning was flawed (based on YOUR metaphysical assumptions which shouldn’t be assumed to be true for the very reason that they are metaphysical). You need to heed your own advice here.

            “The bulk of everyday experience is of us making decisions. These are often decisions, informed by perception, to initiate actions.”

            Yes, and us making decisions, relies on our decision-making repertoire which involves placing values on things that we desire and seek to avoid and execute decisions of actions based on those values. Those decisions are based on an intuitive assumption of causality, for if they weren’t, then we wouldn’t have a predictable structure with which to execute those decisions. If they weren’t, we couldn’t make a decision based on anything we’ve acquired with senses and perception because we wouldn’t find any relationships or patterns in the incoming data to know what the outcome of our decision would produce. Our decisions tend to correlate with reality such that they perpetuate our survival. Our intuitive assumption of causality is the very foundation for all rational thought and decision making. In order for us to make a decision, we weigh the potential consequences (which can only be known through causal assumptions previously acquired through experience or evolutionarily endowed) and then execute them. And how exactly is this everyday causal experience (that which is required for us to make decisions) evidence for indeterminism?

            “That last paragraph is mostly nonsense. I really suggest you try to avoid metaphysics.”

            It is non-sense because your analogy was poor. Trying to reformulate it such that it was a proper analogy, ended up generating confusion no doubt. As for metaphysics, I’m not relying on it, you are. I agree with your suggestion of abandoning metaphysics (at least when it comes to weight in an argument) and recommend that you apply that advice. I merely pointed out how your assumption that determinism implies a grand designer, and indeterminism doesn’t, is flawed as it is based on a metaphysical assumption. You have made an assumption of what types of things a grand designer would produce, which isn’t something that we can ever know — for it is metaphysical knowledge that is unattainable.

            On top of this, if you use a metaphysical assumption in your argument, then I am justified in countering it with my own metaphysical assumption. If you think you have a non-metaphysical reason for why determinism impies a grand designer, and indeterminism doesn’t, then I’m all ears…but I’ve seen nothing of the sort thus far.

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          • It is non-sense because your analogy was poor.

            No, you just didn’t understand it.

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      • Neil,

        “No, you just didn’t understand it.”

        I understood what you were getting at in the analogy, but unfortunately it didn’t address why the rigid scaffold is better for working on the trees. It didn’t address the purpose of Science in the relation to understanding the world with predictive power. Your analogy was too simplistic to acknowledge this unique relationship between science and our understanding of the world. I agree that you can use your analogy to point out how Science has been a rigid structure thus giving us stability in some way to then “work on the tree”. But what is the “work on the tree” supposed to be? Our “work on the tree” is supposed to be our study of how the world works, developing predictive power through causal relationships. I don’t think your analogy addresses this at all, and so it is a poor analogy at least for the topic at hand — even though your analogy certainly has merit in other arguments.

        To use your analogy or some of its concepts, we could say that it turned out that the best type of scaffold (or perhaps the ONLY type) to allow us to “work on the tree” was that which was rigid. We need to know why a rigid scaffold is the best type to accomplish this. Saying “just because” is not a reasonable answer. In some scenario, it may be plausible for us to say that a rigid scaffold is needed because the tree is also rigid and we need a comparable foundation or frame of reference in order to relate the worker, the scaffold, and the tree, such that the worker can learn more or accomplish more (work on the tree). If the tree moved back and forth and we were trying to “work on the tree” (by plucking fruit off of it for example), if our scaffold moved with the swaying of the tree, this may be easier to accomplish than using a rigid scaffold. Thus if the scaffold shared some property with the tree (in this case rigidity or synchronized periodicity, or in the case of science — deterministic laws), we may be able to more easily “work on the tree”. One key in making your analogy useful to this discussion is to address why the rigid scaffolding works better in order to “work on the tree” rather than alternative types of scaffolds. We also have to remember what the tree is (i.e. the world), what the work on the tree is (i.e. further understanding of the world), and how to analogize the scaffold with science or scientific methodologies. Science didn’t make up the formulaic relationships (physical laws) between certain variables and objects in the world from scratch, rather Science discovered those relationships. After an increasing sampling of data showed that these causal relationships existed and were heavily reproducible, and after it was expressible mathematically (say e=mc^2), then the fact that the scientific methodologies were rigid in some way has no relevance to the deterministic relationship found (that e = mc^2, with no exceptions). Even if science had used a less rigid structure, it may still find out how the world works, albeit much more slowly and less efficiently.

        So again, I think that your analogy has been completely understood, but I think it lacks a few components to address all the concerns of the argument at hand.

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        • I understood what you were getting at in the analogy, but unfortunately it didn’t address why the rigid scaffold is better for working on the trees. It didn’t address the purpose of Science in the relation to understanding the world with predictive power.

          I do not see scientific laws as descriptions of the world. Rather, I see them as pragmatic constructs that define a framework for research. This is roughly the view of C.I. Lewis in “A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori”. I have several related posts — check the “epistemology” category.

          Thus I see laws and theories as preferably deterministic, because that defines our research framework more precisely.

          Even if scientific laws were descriptions, it isn’t clear how that would help. It takes only on errant particle somewhere in the universe, to make determinism false. We do not have nearly enough evidence to conclude that there are no errant particles or objects. Some of the scientific laws are useful approximations that are known to be strictly false, though pretty good approximations. You cannot jump to a conclusion that there are no errant particles, on the basis of approximations presenting deterministic relations.

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          • “I do not see scientific laws as descriptions of the world. Rather, I see them as pragmatic constructs that define a framework for research.”

            I see scientific laws as BOTH descriptions of the world (however incomplete they may be — just as all descriptions are) AND pragmatic constructs that define a framework for research.

            If scientific laws are describing observed aspects of the world (e.g. predictable ways that certain events occur or some relationship between variables that we’ve defined such as gravity, time, and distance), I think we can clearly see scientific laws as descriptions of the world. They are a type of description of the world, because they are describing some property of the world based on particular patterns found (causal relationships for example). I’m not sure how anyone could see these as NOT being a type of description of the world, for they are in fact describing some aspect of it (regardless of how incomplete the description is). Unless we change the definition of “description” to something other than the common consensus on the word, I don’t see how description can be avoided…

            “Even if scientific laws were descriptions, it isn’t clear how that would help.”

            Help in what way? To provide supporting (though not conclusive) evidence for causal relationships (i.e. some form of determinism)? Why would this clearly not be the case in your opinion?

            “It takes only on errant particle somewhere in the universe, to make determinism false. We do not have nearly enough evidence to conclude that there are no errant particles or objects.”

            There can never be enough evidence to conclude this, so it is unfalsifiable, and therefore a moot point. What we can look at is the evidence we do have. If all swans we’ve ever seen, millions let’s say, are white — this doesn’t mean that we won’t one day find a black swan that will disprove the statement “All swans are white” (analogous to your errant particle). However, if the evidence is overwhelming for white swans (“inerrant” particles), that evidence can’t be ignored just because of the possibility of finding something to disprove it. Describing swans as white would be an accurate description of the world, based on the evidence (even if a black swan were found, although in such a case it would be MORE accurate to say “Swans are usually white”, or it may be more accurate to say that the black “swan” isn’t a swan at all). Again, we can never prove or disprove randomness/indeterminism or determinism. However, I think it is very coherent and sound to look at the bulk of the evidence we do have (temporal causality being the biggest chunk of evidence I can think of that composes our reality), and try and infer what properties best describe that evidence (determinism in my opinion).

            “Some of the scientific laws are useful approximations that are known to be strictly false, though pretty good approximations. You cannot jump to a conclusion that there are no errant particles, on the basis of approximations presenting deterministic relations.”

            I agree with you here. I am not jumping to any conclusions, I’m just making an assumption based on the bulk of the evidence. It is not conclusive by any means for the reasons you mentioned and more. The important thing to note here is that, even if some of the scientific laws we have are useful approximations and nothing more, they are still describing the world with some accuracy (the predictive power we gain from them proves this) and our approximations are getting better as new laws/theories are put into practice. This shows that our deterministic laws are improving to better predict causal relationships. Predictive power implies causal relationships and vice versa, and these properties are correlated with determinism. Again, this is not conclusive evidence or reasoning for the case of determinism, but it is supporting evidence. If most of what we deal with in science is causal relationships, proven to exist in some sense by the predictive capability obtained from our descriptions/laws of those relationships, then it is supporting evidence. That’s all I’m saying.

            Back to one of your claims that this dialogue spawned from:
            “But I would reach the same conclusion (indeterminism), even if I knew nothing of QM. Instead of saying “the best evidence from physics”, I could have said “the best evidence from everyday experience.”

            You still haven’t explained a logical basis for this assertion. What “best evidence from everyday experience” for indeterminism are you referring to? It certainly isn’t the obvious causal structure that we rely on and see everyday, so what it is?

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          • If scientific laws are describing observed aspects of the world (e.g. predictable ways that certain events occur or some relationship between variables that we’ve defined such as gravity, time, and distance), I think we can clearly see scientific laws as descriptions of the world.

            Scientific laws do not make predictions.

            To make predictions, we need scientific laws plus data. The description is in the data. The laws tell us how to measure and use the data. The two complement one another.

            We construct the laws to be deterministic, because this allows to define our data more precisely. But the actual measurements are not deterministic. Measure the same thing 10 times, and you will get different values, though they are close to one another.

            A system with deterministic laws and deterministic measurements (i.e. always perfect measurements) might make a good case for determinism. But that is not what we have.

            You still haven’t explained a logical basis for this assertion. What “best evidence from everyday experience” for indeterminism are you referring to?

            What are you looking for?

            Logic itself is completely solipsistic. It says nothing about the world. That we can construct imaginary deterministic models of parts of the world does not tell us that the world is deterministic.

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          • “Scientific laws do not make predictions.”

            I never said that they make predictions on their own. We take those laws and are able to plug in actual values of some of the variables to determine predictions of some other dependent variable. You focusing on this is missing the point.

            “But the actual measurements are not deterministic.”

            Just because we don’t have the ability to measure some variable with 100% precision doesn’t mean it isn’t deterministic. Again, this misses the point.

            “A system with deterministic laws and deterministic measurements (i.e. always perfect measurements) might make a good case for determinism. But that is not what we have.”

            True, this would make a good case for determinism (indeed the best case). That we don’t have this doesn’t negate the importance of the causal structure we do have and are able to measure (even if it isn’t 100% accurate).

            “What are you looking for?”

            What am I looking for? I’m looking for an answer to my question obviously.
            What “best evidence from everyday experience” for indeterminism are you referring to? Do you have an answer or are you going to beat around the bush and avoid answering it? This will be the 3rd time I’ve asked with no answer yet. That doesn’t help your case much. I’m still willing to listen/read it, if you have an answer. What is the “best evidence from everyday experience” for indeterminism?

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          • What “best evidence from everyday experience” for indeterminism are you referring to?

            We do not seem to be mindless mechanical robots. And it is hard to see how we could be anything else in a fully deterministic world.

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          • “We do not seem to be mindless mechanical robots. And it is hard to see how we could be anything else in a fully deterministic world.”

            That’s it? That’s all you have? That we do not “feel” like the mechanical robots that we most likely are (albeit not mindless) is your evidence? It sounds like you’re arguing that our lack of instinctual intuitive knowledge of causal mind processes is the best evidence for indeterminism? Well I’m not convinced that instinct and introspection alone are very reliable. First off, I don’t see how you think “mind” is incompatible with determinism. Why do you believe that “mind” is incompatible with determinism? Are you really not able to fathom a causal structure capable of producing “mind”, let alone anything else that we see or experience in our universe? We do not seem, by intuition, to be influenced by genes or environment, and yet we have proven that both of these things contribute to 100% of the heritable differences we’ve tried to measure in different individuals personalities. If you are merely stating that your subjective experience doesn’t itself make causal mind processes apparent, then yes I agree with that. But is that enough to claim it is the “best evidence from everyday experience” for ontological indeterminism? Or would it be better for you to say that it is enough to argue for some type of epistemological indeterminism?

            Second, the main branches of Science that deal with the study of how the mind works, namely, psychology and neuroscience (including the branch of cognitive neuroscience) are increasingly discovering that minds are in fact analogous to mechanical robots. Neurons are similar to transistors or logic gates, and minds appear to emerge from a specific range of organization of these neurons (with more complex minds having more neurons and/or a more complex arrangement). We have by no means even come close to knowing exactly HOW neurons give rise to the things we call “subjective experiences”, but there appears to be a causal structure behind it all nevertheless. Once we use our minds, we tend to find patterns in the data we are receiving from the world around us. When these are temporal patterns relating certain behavior or actions to a frame of reference (e.g. memory), then these patterns are no doubt related to causal structures that describe the world in some predictable way (for example: every time I throw up a ball into the air, it comes back down with gravity). Every time I think about performing an action, and then I perform that action, I’m proving the causal structure behind my own reality (one event precedes the other, predictably in some ways). To me, the bulk of everyday experience is “having many goals and knowing how to use the causal structure of reality to meet those goals”, and thus the “best evidence from everyday experience” is for determinism.

            What I was expecting from you was evidence of acausality (other than some idealistic/subjective acausality). I do appreciate you answering the question though. Always a pleasure. 🙂

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          • That’s it?

            It’s enough for me to reach develop a tentative opinion.

            The evidence for determinism is zero, yet you seem to find that sufficient.

            What I was expecting from you was evidence of acausality (other than some idealistic/subjective acausality).

            You would have to define what you mean by causation.

            As best I can tell, our notion of cause derives from what we can cause either directly or indirectly. But, as a determinist, you presumably deny that we cause anything. Causation would seem to be meaningless in a deterministic world.

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          • “The evidence for determinism is zero, yet you seem to find that sufficient.”

            It isn’t zero. You think that there is evidence for indeterminism based on our daily experiences, and I pointed out that there is (also) evidence for determinism based on our daily experiences. So we both apparently have evidence that isn’t zero. The fact that there is a causal structure in our day to day reality is evidence that supports it. It isn’t conclusive evidence by any means, but it supports it nevertheless. As I mentioned, I believe that most of our daily experiences involves:
            “having many goals and knowing (or finding out) how to use the causal structure of reality to meet those goals”, and thus the “best evidence from everyday experience” is for causality (determinism). Your claim was that the “best evidence from everyday experience” for indeterminism is that “we do not seem to be mindless mechanical robots”. You likely disagree with me on this, but I think that my “evidence from everyday experience” of causal relationships carries more weight than your evidence of what we do or do not “seem to be”. Either way, it isn’t zero evidence for determinism, not unless (at the very least) you are claiming that you have zero evidence for indeterminism — in which case, your claims contradict one another — or you are needlessly (and confusingly) using the term “evidence” in two entirely different ways within the same topic of discussion.

            “You would have to define what you mean by causation.”

            You likely know exactly what I mean by causation. It’s going to be the standard definition of the term. Basically, I use that term to mean that there are events unfolding under the constraints of certain physical rules to cause other events in some predictable way. Hopefully you at least have an idea of what I mean when I use these terms and don’t continue asking for definitions of words in definitions of words in definitions of words. You almost certainly know what I mean by the term. You don’t need to ask me what I mean by “events” or “physical” or “contraints” or “unfolding” or “rules” or “predictable” or “way”. You know what I generally mean by these terms, so it is just beating around the bush.

            “As best I can tell, our notion of cause derives from what we can cause either directly or indirectly. But, as a determinist, you presumably deny that we cause anything. Causation would seem to be meaningless in a deterministic world.”

            Not at all. This just means that you are missing the point. Let me explain. “Causes” as we’ve come to define the term and use it — applies in differing degrees of directness or indirectness to the events that follow. Yes everything is connected to everything, so in a sense everything is a cause of everything else. However, we usually try to establish the most direct cause that we can find (i.e. causes/events closely situated in spacetime from a common frame of reference), as they appear from scientific analyses to provide us with more reliable predictive power and/or because we can’t look everywhere at once and see an obvious causal chain (when there are complex levels of interaction occurring). As a determinist, I do not deny that we are a “part of the causal chain”, nor do I deny that we can conveniently refer to every part of the causal chain as a “cause” (though not an initial cause). What I do deny as a determinist is that there exist some type of self-causers (acausal entities/objects/events), that is, that we or anything else can cause an event without there having been a prior cause that led to the cause in question. There is no break between causes where someone/something can violate the rules that govern time and motion (and thus all events).

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          • It isn’t zero.

            Determinism denies the possibility of evidence.

            According to determinism, that you saw the apple fall from a tree is a consequence of the deterministic behavior of the universe. Whether or not the apple fell from the tree is not relevant. Causation becomes an illusion.

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          • “Determinism denies the possibility of evidence.”

            No it doesn’t. Evidence is something that we’ve defined to be information that supports a claim. It is no less possible or real because of determinism. It may be true that the ontological status of “evidence” is radically different from our use of the term, but that doesn’t matter pragmatically nor for the purposes of this discussion.

            “According to determinism, that you saw the apple fall from a tree is a consequence of the deterministic behavior of the universe.”

            True.

            “Whether or not the apple fell from the tree is not relevant.”

            Relevant to what?

            “Causation becomes an illusion.”

            How so? Causation is just determinism in action. Causation is some fixed way that events unfold according to some rules (no matter how complex these rules are, and no matter if the rules change according to some higher level of causation), and that is exactly what determinism is.

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  5. It only takes one post that Jerry deems less-than-respectful to get banned. In my case, it was a comment about an article by Henry Gee that Jerry thought was wrong, wrong, wrong!. Jerry asserted (paraphrasing) that Gee showed no sign of trying to be humorous. I pointed out a number of places where Gee clearly had his tongue in cheek and prefaced it by saying something like “Are you blind”?

    Jerry admitted that he had seen those examples but, because HE didn’t find them funny, they somehow weren’t signs that Gee was trying to be funny. And I was “extremely rude.” I never figured out whether that was because I pointed out the examples or because I had the temerity to ask, in a less than obsequious manner, if he hadn’t actually seen them.

    I wouldn’t cross the street to get back in Jerry’s “good graces” because they are neither good nor gracious.

    As to his “determinism,” I have often pointed out his philosophical naïveté and his inability to consistently apply even his own crude thinking. My personal favorite is “Acme Philosophy Corp.” (Google it!).

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    • Thanks, John.

      I actually find it somewhat amusing, that Jerry is so quick to take offense. Yet he dishes out a lot himself

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    • I just noticed that your first two attempts to post that comment went into the spam queue. Sorry about that.

      I’ll mark them as not spam, in the hope that helps next time the spam software checks your posts. But then I’ll move them to trash, since I don’t need three copies of the same comment.

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  6. I just noticed that your first two attempts to post that comment went into the spam queue. Sorry about that.

    Not a problem. I figured it was because I tried to give a link to “Acme Philosophy Corp.” Then I discovered it came up easily in a Google search (Hey! I did have an original thought!) and I didn’t need a link, it went through.

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