Notes on free will

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at his blog site, Jerry Coyne writes:

Based on statements of some compatibilists, I realized that one reason philosophers spend so much time trying to define forms of free will compatible with determinism is because they see bad consequences of rejecting all free will.

Obviously, Jerry is a mindless mechanical moron, meaninglessly mimicking a memorized message.

Well, actually, I don’t believe that about Jerry.  Rather, I take it that Jerry has free will, in spite of his repeated insistence to the contrary.

I’m quite puzzled about what Jerry Coyne means by “free will”.  I take it to mean only that we are not mindless morons, that we do participate in making decisions.  I doubt that Jerry thinks he is a mindless moron, yet he seems to insist that he has no free will and that his decision making is illusory.

Jerry starts his post with:

I’ve long been puzzled by the many writings of “compatibilists”: those philosophers and laypeople who accept physical determinism of our choices and behaviors, but still maintain that we have a kind of “free will.”

I consider myself a compatibilist, but I do not accept physical determinism.  The evidence seems to be against it.  If there were physical determinism, then, as I see it, we would all be mindless mechanical morons.  Yet we don’t seem to be that, so I doubt physical determinism.

Coyne on Dennett

Jerry’s post is mainly about a talk by Daniel Dennett on free will.  (See Jerry’s post for the video).

Jerry is critical of the argument that Dennett gives.  I mostly agree with Jerry’s criticism.  Dennett seems to be saying to neuroscientists, “You have free will, but if you choose to use it to deny free will then you are being mischievous and irresponsible.”  The free will that Dennett giveth with the left hand, he taketh away with the right hand.  What use is free will if one cannot use it to express an opinion — even a wrong opinion?

Dennett is, in effect, attempting to coerce neuroscientists to not deny free will.  Yet, to a compatibilist, the ability to make choices free of coercion is the very essence of free will.

Free will and philosophy

As best I can tell, most philosophers (by which I mean “analytic philosophers”) seem to take reasoning as the centerpiece of human cognition.  They may talk of a “faculty of reason” or a “space of reasons” and much of their philosophy, particularly philosophy of mind, seems to take that as central.  And they seem to take truth and logic as the means by which we make decisions.

I have a very different view.  I see perception as the centerpiece of cognition.  And, in my view, most of our important decisions are made based on pragmatic considerations rather than on truth and logic.  I value reason, of course.  But I see reason as being derived from our clever use of perception.

If our decision making were all based on truth and logic, and if there is one truth for all, then it is hard to see how we could have free will.  Our decisions would all be imposed on us by the requirements of truth and logic.  Thus I see our pragmatic nature as related to free will.

To a first approximation, I see free will as our ability to make decisions on a pragmatic basis.  And I see intelligence as the quality of our pragmatic decision making.

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36 Comments to “Notes on free will”

  1. Neil,

    “Obviously, Jerry is a mindless mechanical moron, meaninglessly mimicking a memorized message.”
    “Well, actually, I don’t believe that about Jerry. Rather, I take it that Jerry has free will, in spite of his repeated insistence to the contrary.”

    Well, “meaning” seems to be something that comes with understanding certain types of patterns observed in nature and their implications with regard to our goals.
    Jerry has a mind, based on how we’ve defined what a mind is. If someone is able to do what we’ve defined as “thinking”, then they have a mind. Therefore, Jerry isn’t mindless, nor does he fit the definition of a “moron” by any common standard of the term. You are correct that he is mechanical as we all appear to be (biologically mechanical), and you are correct that he is repeating a memorized message, or at least repeating memorized knowledge or information (just as we all have to do if we say anything that has any bearing on what we’ve experienced). This is the case, even though Jerry doesn’t have free will (as best as we can tell from the evidence anyway).

    “I’m quite puzzled about what Jerry Coyne means by “free will”. I take it to mean only that we are not mindless morons, that we do participate in making decisions. ”

    I’m not puzzled at all, and I honestly have never understood how you could be. As I’ve discussed with you a number of times, the free will Jerry is referring to (i.e. what some have referred to as “classical free will”) is the ability to have intentionally behaved differently given the same initial conditions (i.e. a self-caused behavioral difference). This is the free will that he asserts doesn’t exist, and rightly so, as the scientific evidence overwhelmingly rejects such a notion. The only thing that governs our behavior is the laws of physics (or whatever term you’d like to use that refers to the rules that make matter and energy move and change form as they do), just as it governs anything and everything else in the universe (our brain is no exception), so far as the scientific evidence has shown us anyway. We can’t violate those laws. We can’t make a neuron in our brain somehow respond differently to the electric fields and chemical potentials that surround it. It has to respond in whatever way is governed by that physics and chemistry. All neurons are constrained by these same factors and thus all of our behavior is as well. We can still make decisions, and I’m sure Jerry agrees that we do made decisions, just as computers make decisions. He just goes one step further to point out that we don’t make decisions “freely” somehow outside of these physical constraints, just as computers are programmed to make decisions a certain way, so are we, albeit in a different way and with biological hardware and mechanisms.

    “I doubt that Jerry thinks he is a mindless moron, yet he seems to insist that he has no free will and that his decision making is illusory.”

    That we make decisions “freely” is the illusion, although even some philosophers have argued that it isn’t really an illusion either. We don’t even consciously know or recognize where our thoughts come from. Though we may not see that there is something else controlling it mechanistically, we nevertheless DON’T see what IS controlling it. Thus even the illusion of free will is itself an illusion in a sense because its quite obvious in our consciousness that we can’t even identify where our thoughts are coming from, how those that do enter our stream of consciousness get there in the first place, etc.

    “If there were physical determinism, then, as I see it, we would all be mindless mechanical morons. Yet we don’t seem to be that, so I doubt physical determinism”

    This doesn’t logically follow. Unless your definition of “mindless mechanical morons” doesn’t fit how most others would conventionally define those terms, physical determinism only means that all causal states are predetermined and can only follow one causal path. There is no logical connection or necessity that the way we feel to be “free” must be in a world that isn’t deterministic. You are merely asserting that because things don’t seem a certain way, that they probably aren’t that way — which is a good starting hypothesis, if you didn’t have all the data that we currently have obtained in the sciences. Once we obtained the data that we now have in physics, psychology, neuroscience, etc., it has become clear that things are not always what they “seem” to be. Quantum physics alone completely throws such an assumption out the window, as well as the discoveries regarding perceptual illusions. There are many scientific discoveries that are counter-intuitive, but we must follow where the evidence leads us to remain consistent with a scientific methodology.

    Also, note the words you use “we don’t SEEM to be…”. That’s the whole idea behind illusionism. It’s called “illusionism” BECAUSE it does not SEEM that we are constrained in our decision-making, even though the evidence suggests that we are. We mustn’t base our judgements solely on how things “seem” to be, especially once evidence has been obtained that challenges such a notion and only continues to show that our old assumptions were simply wrong. The sun doesn’t rise in the east and set in the west, even though upon first glance it may “seem” that way. Everyone used to think it does, but then the scientific discoveries showed that those assumptions were wrong. Just as there was heavy opposition to the heliocentric theory initially, such is the case with free will where people have a lot of motivation (personal, religious, etc.) to keep that dream alive, despite the scientific evidence shattering such a view long ago.

    “I consider myself a compatibilist, but I do not accept physical determinism. The evidence seems to be against it. If there were physical determinism, then, as I see it, we would all be mindless mechanical morons.”

    Yet, the only other option that anyone has ever proposed other than determinism is indeterminism resulting from some level of fundamental randomness. Unfortunately having our behavior governed by randomness doesn’t give us free will either, and in fact, it is even more “mindless” than having our behavior governed by processes that are entirely ordered and structured (deterministic), just as rational thought must be ordered and structured.

    The major point of the debate, or where it is usually steered (and one that philosophers such as Dan Dennett have discussed heavily) is that while we do have “free will” in the classical sense of being able to violate the laws of physics, we do have “free will” in the only sense that matters (in Dennett’s opinion). Dennett is simply saying that because of our brains, and the level of complexity of our brains, we are able to make decisions, and better than say an ant, or a fish, or a cat could do, and thus we are actively playing a role in the causal chain and are in this sense “responsible” for what we do. We are capable of higher level decision making just as a computer can be built to do. Our level of pattern recognition is the limiting factor and we are well endowed with pattern recognition. So if we simply redefine “free will” as being able to make decisions (let alone higher level decisions), then it’s a no-brainer that we have this brand of “free will”. Unfortunately, it circumvents the crux of the issue that most philosophers have been trying to tackle, and that is “classical free will”. People are concerned with whether or not, given the same initial conditions, they are able to choose to behave differently, and if so, that the difference isn’t due to randomness. This idea has only be refuted by the scientific evidence, and Jerry is merely pointing that out, and illustrating that Dan Dennett seems to be shifting the discussion to another issue and thus Dennett fails to actually save free will. He merely is focusing on a different aspect of the topic of decision making, yet make no mistake, that Dennett believes that consciousness itself is a result of mechanistic processes happening in the brain, and there’s no magic involved. No dualism. Just mechanistic processes. So even by Dennett’s admission, the very consciousness that we use as a substrate for any decision making we’re aware of is in fact governed by mechanistic processes. End of story.

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    • “The major point of the debate, or where it is usually steered (and one that philosophers such as Dan Dennett have discussed heavily) is that WHILE WE DO have “free will” in the classical sense of being able to violate the laws of physics, we do have “free will” in the only sense that matters (in Dennett’s opinion). ”

      Typo of course. I meant:

      “The major point of the debate, or where it is usually steered (and one that philosophers such as Dan Dennett have discussed heavily) is that WHILE WE DON’T have “free will” in the classical sense of being able to violate the laws of physics, we do have “free will” in the only sense that matters (in Dennett’s opinion). “

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      • There’s no end to this story, that’s the problem. Chemistry actually does not reduce to physics. and biology does not reduce to chemistry, and organisms do not reduce to biology, and a social animal with a complex brain with a myriad processes going on within it is not reducible to other organisms. We are talking about phenomena of ‘strong emergence,’ and there’s a problem there. You have to be able to diagram your causal chain from the subatomic particles to my choice to vote for Obama, and you can’t do it – and you *know* you can’t do it, so you simply reify a theory into meta-explanation of behavior. That’s ideology, not science, not philosophy.

        I’m a biological determinist and a social determinist, so when I first got back into this discussion, I was favorable to your argument. But on deeper philosophical consideration – and I suspect you are suspicious of philosophy as Coyne is, but some of us actually prefer to think matters through – frankly, you have no story to end.

        By all means, convene your party and try to get elected; see if you can convince voters that their entire experience is mere illusion.

        Otherwise what you’re saying is, ‘this idea makes me feel better, I’m satisfied with something I can feel righteous about, since it appears to be scientifically grounded.’

        It’s not; so I can’t concur.

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        • Everything reduces to physics as all the evidence supports. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that our neuronal activity which leads to our behavior is free from physical causal constraints. Neuronal potentials must actuate as they do because of the laws of physics that govern their physical and chemical action. There is no evidence to the contrary, so whether you concur or not, the evidence suggests we can’t self-cause our behavior and thus there is no free will in the classical sense. Higher order systems are no exception to the rules governing their underlying fundamental systems. That’s a fact, not opinion.

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          • Everything reduces to physics as all the evidence supports.

            There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that our neuronal activity which leads to our behavior is free from physical causal constraints.

            Those two assertions are completely unrelated. The first is likely false, and the second is likely true.

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          • “Those two assertions are completely unrelated. The first is likely false, and the second is likely true.”

            I’d like to hear your arguments and evidence to support your view that the processes that govern all matter and energy in the universe are not likely to be the physical laws or rules that we’ve discovered over the centuries. I’m all ears…

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          • I’d like to hear your arguments and evidence to support your view that the processes that govern all matter and energy in the universe are not likely to be the physical laws or rules that we’ve discovered over the centuries.

            LOL. You are making stuff up. I have not suggested anything at all like that.

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          • “LOL. You are making stuff up. I have not suggested anything at all like that.”

            I had said “Everything reduces to physics as all the evidence supports.”

            You said that claim was most likely false. Then I asked you for evidence and arguments to support that everything (i.e. how all matter and energy in the universe change as they do) is likely to not be governed by these physical rules. Now you are accusing me of making stuff up? Hmm…perhaps you should re-read that statement of yours or clarify your response that “it is most likely to be false”. WHAT exactly are you arguing is most likely false?

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          • I had said “Everything reduces to physics as all the evidence supports.”

            You said that claim was most likely false.

            The expression “biology reduces to physics” is useless and very misleading, if it merely means “nothing that happens in biology is a violation of the laws of physics.”

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          • “The expression “biology reduces to physics” is useless and very misleading, if it merely means “nothing that happens in biology is a violation of the laws of physics.”

            It may be misleading, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The reason why nothing that happens in biology violates the laws of physics is because all of the underlying processes that add up to the macro-scopic scales of organization and dynamics are abiding by those laws. It’s a no-brainer. This may be useless otherwise, but it has been pointed out simply because some people seem to be suggesting that somehow biology is free from causal constraints and/or randomness. It isn’t. Which means free will can’t exist at the level of biological systems either. That was the point of that comment. Other than that, I agree it is fairly useless otherwise.

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          • “That’s a fact, not opinion.” Such an expression is ideological not scientific.

            “Everything reduces to physics as all the evidence supports. ”

            That’s a metaphysical claim on fundamental ontology, with an implicit epistemological assertion. I don’t see how you can make such broad philosophical claims without engaging in the broader philosophical difficulties these entails. (Daniel Dennett is not America’s only philosopher.) The possibility of strong emergence is still in debate, as is the possibility of weak supervenience.

            Furthermore, do you not see that you are engaging – at least partly – in reasoning by analogy? ‘Atomic reactions are to matter as neuronal reactions are to mind – and out pops a decision.’ The over-simplification here seems obvious to me.

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          • ” “That’s a fact, not opinion.” Such an expression is ideological not scientific.”

            Nonsense. It’s ideological when one doesn’t have evidence to support it. It’s scientific when one does.

            ” “Everything reduces to physics as all the evidence supports. ” That’s a metaphysical claim on fundamental ontology, with an implicit epistemological assertion. ”

            No it’s not. It has nothing to do with metaphysics. The “everything” I’ve referred to has nothing to do with metaphysical entities or assertions. It only has to do with the empirical observations. “Everything” that we can observe, involving how matter and energy change in the universe, have only been shown to abide by the laws of physics and those causal constraints. It has nothing to do with metaphysics, though one could expand the discussion to a metaphysical one. I have not done that.

            “Furthermore, do you not see that you are engaging – at least partly – in reasoning by analogy? ‘Atomic reactions are to matter as neuronal reactions are to mind – and out pops a decision.’ The over-simplification here seems obvious to me. ”

            No, that’s not what I was doing. What I was saying is that atoms and neurons alike abide by the laws of physics and how they respond to electrical and chemical potentials has only been shown to be constantly dependent on the laws of physics (rules) that govern the change of that matter and energy. No analogy is needed here because electro-static potentials and energy gradients exist at both the atomic scale and at the neuronal scale. All of the atoms that the neurons are composed of are constrained by the laws of physics, and the electrical and chemical activity existing at the larger scale with neurons is likewise following the same rules with respect to electrical/chemical potentials. The way calcium ions and sodium ions move and all other aspects of what is facilitating the neuronal activity are constrained by these laws. The only difference is that the effect on an atom is different than the accumulating effect on the larger system, since many tiny effects if you will are accumulating into larger scaled effects.

            Regardless, no matter how you cut it, the evidence has clearly shown that people and their resultant behavior are the results of environment (external conditioning environment and internal chemical environment) at the macro/micro-scale, and genes and neurons at the micro/nano-scale, and the interactions of atoms and energy at the nano-scale. Nowhere do we see an opportunity for someone to cram in a causa sui characteristic, where we can change the course of events in any way given the same initial conditions. The only changes we’ve seen can in theory operate with the same initial conditions are those caused by quantum randomness.

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          • ‘” “Everything reduces to physics as all the evidence supports. ” That’s a metaphysical claim on fundamental ontology, with an implicit epistemological assertion. ”
            No it’s not. It has nothing to do with metaphysics. The “everything” I’ve referred to has nothing to do with metaphysical entities or assertions.’

            No, I’m sorry, the ‘everything’ you refer to is a metaphysical entity, it is the foundation of metaphysics. It doesn’t matter whether the claims made on it are derived empirically or through deduction, or pulled from some ancient text – such claims are metaphysical by definition.

            The evidence may *suggest*, through our inference from it, that all matter tends to function in this manner; but it doesn’t accumulate into a fact unless certain obvious gaps of explanation are plugged, and that is where the philosophical debate becomes necessary.

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          • “No, I’m sorry, the ‘everything’ you refer to is a metaphysical entity, it is the foundation of metaphysics. It doesn’t matter whether the claims made on it are derived empirically or through deduction, or pulled from some ancient text – such claims are metaphysical by definition. ”

            Wrong. The empirical world needs no metaphysical assertions. All one needs is what they observe so there is no need to postulate anything outside of our physical experience, ergo, there is no need to postulate metaphysical entities. I’ve not postulated anything outside of physical experience and induction, and thus I’m steering clear of metaphysics in this discussion. I’m only discussing the physical evidence and observations here, not any metaphysical assertions or entities. Arguing metaphysics is pointless.

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          • You are arguing ‘All being functions in this fashion’ – that is ontology – fundamental ontology, as a claim on all possible being – no matter from whence derived. And fundamental ontology is a branch of metaphysics – ‘above the physical’ because presuming a view that embraces all possible reality.

            “I’ve not postulated anything outside of physical experience and induction,” No, actually, you’ve engaged in quite a bit of generalization and deduction – as we do – and must! You should definitely look into the problems inductive reasoning has had over the years, beginning with Hume’s arguments against causation.

            The danger of engaging philosophy without philosophic reflection is that someone’s already been there before.

            But of course – you’re not engaging philosophy, you say; so well –

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          • ” You are arguing ‘All being functions in this fashion’ – that is ontology – fundamental ontology, as a claim on all possible being – no matter from whence derived. And fundamental ontology is a branch of metaphysics – ‘above the physical’ because presuming a view that embraces all possible reality. ”

            No, I’m arguing that “the observed phenomena that we describe as matter and energy changes” seem to follow these rules (i.e. the laws of physics). I’m arguing that “these observed phenomena seem to follow consistent causal patterns” that we haven’t demonstrated to having been violated yet. No ontology, no metaphysics.

            ” No, actually, you’ve engaged in quite a bit of generalization and deduction – as we do – and must! You should definitely look into the problems inductive reasoning has had over the years, beginning with Hume’s arguments against causation.”

            I’ve only discussed what the empirical evidence shows, and thus how it relates to the concept of classical free will as defined. That’s my point here. I’ve looked into these philosophical problems, including Hume’s argument, and they have no relevance to this discussion. He simply argued that inductive reasoning and the apparent causality that results can’t be justified rationally or logically. I think it is reasonable to say that the only thing we have to work with to determine what correlates with reality is our experience and observations, and thus, whatever patterns we find in nature, if we can use them to predict phenomena successfully, then we can be confident that they correlate with reality in some respect. That’s really all that matters here. Since we’ve found patterns in nature (e.g. laws of physics) that provide the ability to make successful predictions, then we can be confident that we have found something that correlates with reality. This is what we’ve found, and it negates classical free will.

            ” The danger of engaging philosophy without philosophic reflection is that someone’s already been there before. But of course – you’re not engaging philosophy, you say; so well –”

            I’m engaging in natural philosophy in a sense, or the implementation of scientific principles. You can always argue that it requires a philosophical starting point that lies outside of natural philosophy, but that is beside the point. We generally are discussing these matters with implicit philosophical assumptions that there is a physical reality, that there are things that exist apart from my experience, etc., but those assumptions don’t matter with regard to the topic of debate (classical free will). What matters is what we’ve empirically observed to support or reject the existence of classical free will. So you could say that I’m philosophizing in a sense by limiting this discussion to a scientific one, and if so, fine. That doesn’t solve anything here. You still have to demonstrate empirical evidence that suggests we do have classical free will if you are going to scientifically defend the existence of classical free will. I have yet to hear any evidence that supports this view. I’m only hearing repeated attempts to avoid the subject and avoid countering it with evidence, by instead talking about philosophy. I want to hear empirical and thus scientific argumentation and evidence only. I’m not interested in arguing this matter in non-scientific terms, and outside of the domain of science.

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          • You come across as a fundamentalist metaphysician denying that you are doing metaphysics.

            Maybe you should try to tone down the way that you write.

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          • ” You come across as a fundamentalist metaphysician denying that you are doing metaphysics. Maybe you should try to tone down the way that you write.”

            I’m sorry you feel that I come across that way Neil. I have been arguing with empiricism and science, and thus metaphysics need not enter the discussion (though I will concede to the argument that we all participate in metaphysics in some way or another with any discussion). It is merely a diversion that is steering us off topic. I suggest that you stick with facts, evidence, empirical support, etc., if you expect your position to be taken seriously in the domain of science.

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          • “The evidence may *suggest*, through our inference from it, that all matter tends to function in this manner; but it doesn’t accumulate into a fact unless certain obvious gaps of explanation are plugged, and that is where the philosophical debate becomes necessary.”

            Yet, currently there are no gaps of explanation in terms of whether or not physical laws constrain how matter and energy change over time. We may not know all physical laws or how they all can be used to predict phenomena at the largest scales, but at all scales that we’ve encountered, there have been no exceptions to these physical laws, which means one would have to postulate ad hoc that there are exceptions, and that what classical free will proponents appear to be doing. It’s unreasonable and unsubstantiated to do so.

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          • “Yet, currently there are no gaps of explanation in terms of whether or not physical laws constrain how matter and energy change over time.”
            It’s not matter and energy that needs explaining in this topic. That’s where the gaps get generated.

            ” one would have to postulate ad hoc that there are exceptions, and that what classical free will proponents appear to be doing.”
            No, that’s not really what libertarian advocates are doing. Their arguments are a little more complicated than that, and, although I think weak, need a different argumentative strategy to unpack and dismantle.

            It appears to be the case that incompatibilists and libertarians are talking *at* each other, rather than with each other – and we compatibilists get stuck in the middle trying to moderate, but getting attacked from both sides. Oh well. Another reason why I suspect the whole issue is a dead letter.

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          • “It appears to be the case that incompatibilists and libertarians are talking *at* each other, rather than with each other – and we compatibilists get stuck in the middle trying to moderate, but getting attacked from both sides. Oh well. Another reason why I suspect the whole issue is a dead letter.”

            Yes, if people aren’t willing to accept what the evidence suggests (causal constraints and/or randomness producing our behavior), than the conversation can go no further. I agree that there are more complicated aspects of this topic that can be discussed, but the issue regarding classical free will is a done deal as far as I’m concerned. It’s like trying to still argue that the earth is the center of the solar system, by using argumentation that doesn’t take into account the empirical data. The empirical data must support the argument or it has no merit. In any case, I will always follow the evidence and be persuaded as it continues to inform us.

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        • “By all means, convene your party and try to get elected; see if you can convince voters that their entire experience is mere illusion. ”

          Well this is a loaded statement. I would say that our experience of free will is an illusion, but our experience isn’t an illusion. We really do experience reality, whatever that may be described as. Experience is as real as anything can be. It’s the idea of experiencing reality without having causal constraints that is the illusion. As mentioned in my earlier comment to Neil, even the illusion of free will specifically is itself an illusion of sorts, because we don’t even consciously recognize where our thoughts are coming from, how our stream of consciousness which leads to our behavior is getting the stream it does, etc.

          “What he wants is a non-blame-based (‘retributive’) justice system. Fine, so do I.”

          I couldn’t agree more. The sooner people accept the scientific evidence which overwhelmingly demonstrates that we have no free will, and thus a retributive justice system is even more irrational to uphold, the sooner we can move forward as a society.

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          • Strict determinism is only one possible argument against retributive justice – and unfortunately, demanding its acceptance seems to me to unnecessarily complicate possible political moves needed to get beyond retributive justice.

            The ‘scientific evidence’ needs a carefully constructed theoretical framework supported by argumentation. Again, you are engaging in philosophy, denying it by calling your position ‘fact.’ Marxists tell me that dialectical materialism is a fact of fundamental ontology; fundamentalists tell me that intelligent design is a fact of fundamental ontology. If I had a dime for every ‘fact’ asserted of fundamental ontology throughout history, I’d be a rich man.

            I’m not saying the discussion is entirely vacuous. But I do think it tends to run around in circles. One reason I’m a compatibilist is that when libertarians make their claims, I get to say ‘fine , whatever,’ and go on to something else, because, after all, they might be right to some extent, and socially, their being right or wrong is irrelevant. As John Searle once pointed out, socially we are confronted over and over with choices to make. Free will may be a complete illusion, but it is one that receives constant re-enforcement. This is something B.F. Skinner could not over-come – Walden Two itself could only be realized because its inhabitants thought they were doing something that made them feel better – i.e., something they ‘wanted to do,’ i.e., something they chose.

            Some form of determinism is probably the correct philosophical stance; but no form of determinism is so totally realized theoretically that all possible human behavior can be explained by it.

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          • Some form of determinism is probably the correct philosophical stance; but no form of determinism is so totally realized theoretically that all possible human behavior can be explained by it.

            To me, this seems about right.

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          • “Strict determinism is only one possible argument against retributive justice – and unfortunately, demanding its acceptance seems to me to unnecessarily complicate possible political moves needed to get beyond retributive justice. ”

            Sure, determinism isn’t needed, nor am I arguing for it. I don’t think the evidence supports 100% determinism, since we haven’t yet found evidence for non-local hidden variables in quantum physics. I think the evidence supports interminism resulting from quantum randomness, although for all practical purposes, we can see that the laws of physics provide a resulting micro/macro-scopic world that is adequately deterministic to a high level of precision. Either way, determinism or indeterminism (caused by randomness no less) negate free will in the classical sense. Accepting this determinism or indeterminism and the resulting implications regarding its negation of free will support the idea that retributive justice is irrational. If people realize that their intuitions go against rationality, just like our evolutionarily engrained (intuitive) racism goes against our subsequent rational analysis of the obvious equality of races, so is the case with free will. It may be counter-intuitive to deny the existence of free will, but it is in line with the scientific evidence to reject such a notion, and just like we override our racial prejudices with rational activity in our pre-frontal cortex given the knowledge we now have supporting racial equality, we should do the same with free will to reap the benefits of accepting scientific discoveries as they continue to inform us over time.

            ” The ‘scientific evidence’ needs a carefully constructed theoretical framework supported by argumentation. Again, you are engaging in philosophy, denying it by calling your position ‘fact.’ ”

            No, I’m not engaging in philosophy when I assert what the evidence supports. That’s science, which if you want to call that “natural” philosophy or naturalism than I concede to your point that I’m engaging in philosophy. Make no mistake however that my assertions are scientifically grounded. We’ve not found an instance where we can self-cause our behavior. It has been shown to be entirely dependent on genes and environment at the scales we most commonly interact with, and dependent on physical rules in nature at the fundamental levels on the smallest scales. Neither the macro nor micro-nano scales offer any evidence that supports classical free will, and that has been my only point in this discussion. If you think you have evidence that does support classical free will at these scales, I’m all ears…

            “Some form of determinism is probably the correct philosophical stance; but no form of determinism is so totally realized theoretically that all possible human behavior can be explained by it.”

            No evidence supports that any aspect of our behavior is ever outside of causal constraints (less quantum randomness), and that’s the bottom line here. Regardless of if it is deterministic or indeterministic, neither offer hope for free will. If you have evidence to the contrary, I’m always willing to listen. So far, I’ve heard no evidence put forward to support that classical free will is possible given the scientific evidence we’ve obtained thus far.

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          • Well, I seem to be asking for a stronger explanation, you seem to be saying ‘no other explanation is possible.’ Since I know that there are other (some stronger, some weaker) possible explanations – and this is certainly not the place to review them – I fear we have reached an impasse. If I can’t even persuade you that you are engaged in philosophic discourse – which is quite clear to me – then further discussion of possible philosophic issues is rather moot. Obviously your position gets you something; my sense of that is that is incomplete, but I could be wrong. However, strict incompatibilism doesn’t get me any more than does strict libertarianism. But I like to keep an open mind.

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          • ” If I can’t even persuade you that you are engaged in philosophic discourse – which is quite clear to me – then further discussion of possible philosophic issues is rather moot. ”

            I’ve only discussed natural philosophy (science). I’ve only discussed what the evidence suggests about causal constraints, and how this is incompatible with the classical free will that’s been defined as it has. I agree it doesn’t look like we can persuade one another, yet all I’ve asked for is evidence that suggests classical free will exists, and I’ve not yet heard a word from you nor Neil that supports this. No evidence or arguments presented. I’m still waiting for that if you have something to contribute to supporting your position. I have an open mind as well, hence the title of my own blog. I’m willing to listen to arguments and evidence, but not dogma, and thus not argument by assertion. If you have evidence to support classical free will, please by all means share it. If you have none, than you’re merely arguing by assertion and employing ad hoc assumptions which make your position less likely to be true (far less likely in fact).

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          • Lage, you seem to think we are engaged in one kind of argument, when it seems clear to me that we are engaged in an entirely different kind of argument. I haven’t asserted anything that you apparently think I have, so I can’t make the argument you are asking from me, an argument I have no interest in.

            The arguments I have made are grounded by terms well understood in philosophy, the definitions of which you simply deny are applicable to your position or argument. At that point I would say there is nothing to do but agree to disagree – except that’s it’s clear we can’t even agree on what it is we are dis/agreeing about.

            One final note – compatibilistic theories of behavior are by no means defenses of ‘classical free will’ – but of course, you will probably deny that (I know Jerry Coyne does), so what would be the next step here?

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          • If you are not advocating classical free will, then all you are doing by calling yourself a compatibilist is changing the definition of free will to something else, as many have pointed out before me. It is silly to adopt the term in the first place because you are simply introducing confusion into the debate by saying that free will exists, just not the free will that people generally refer to when they use the term, i.e., “the ability to have chosen to do differently given the same initial conditions, and with that difference not caused by randomness”. If you are doing this, then in my opinion you should drop the term, and instead call yourself an autonomist or something similar, where you are merely asserting that people make higher level decisions and do so based on what they’ve learned and what brain hardware they have and so forth. I merely ask that you stop calling it free will! That only introduces confusion into the discussion.

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  2. I will add one last comment. I believe there is a justified concern that informing people of the scientific discoveries showing that we don’t have classical free will can have some bad consequences. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not true, nor does it necessarily imply that we should lie to people and say it’s not true. Some people are certainly better off not having particular knowledge, but science has always gone the way of more knowledge regardless of the consequences, so we are likely going to continue to increase knowledge and accept the scientific discoveries that we come across and share them with the public so we can all make the most responsible decisions possible, by having a better approximation of “how the world really is” over time.

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  3. Coyne gets so strident on the determinism issue, I’ve just stopped paying attention to his comments on it.
    What he wants is a non-blame-based (‘retributive’) justice system. Fine, so do I. But one doesn’t have to be a strict determinist to get there. Indeed, all this does is confuse the issue.
    Also, the hope that strict determinism will somehow ‘disprove’ the religious hope for the ‘soul’ is bogus, there are a number of theistic determinisms.
    I’ve long thought the ‘free will/determinism’ debate a dead letter. Since it’s become popular with it, I wrassled with it a couple of months, only to realize it is still a dead letter. Atoms function deterministically – so what? we’re not atoms.

    Still Coyne’s blog is interesting for other issues, and I have no problem with his continued propagation of New Atheism. (Although personally? I don’t like cats.)

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    • “Atoms function deterministically – so what? we’re not atoms.”

      Regardless of whether we describe them as deterministic or I deterministic fundamentally, they are governed by the laws of physics, just as we are. Our brains are made of neurons which are governed by the same laws and thus free will is not possible in the classical sense. People need to drop this dead horse because the classical free will debate ended long ago with science invalidating such a view.

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    • I do read Coyne’s “free will” posts, but mostly for entertainment.

      What amuses me is the certainty of some folk, about what they cannot possibly known. They at least ought to be more tentative and recognize that they are only expressing opinion.

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      • “What amuses me is the certainty of some folk, about what they cannot possibly known. They at least ought to be more tentative and recognize that they are only expressing opinion.”

        I can only hope that you are not referring to the classical free will debate, for the evidence suggests we don’t have that kind of free will. This isn’t opinion. This is fact. We may one day find a way out of this status with new evidence that we haven’t yet discovered, but with what we have found so far, we’ve seen that people are products of their genes and environment at the largest scale, and are fundamentally governed by the laws of physics at the smallest scale. There’s nothing we’ve found so far to put a wrench in this conclusion. So far, the evidence has only been building to further support this.

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        • I can only hope that you are not referring to the classical free will debate, for the evidence suggests we don’t have that kind of free will. This isn’t opinion. This is fact.

          I see this as an almost perfect example of certainty about what you cannot possibly know.

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          • “I see this as an almost perfect example of certainty about what you cannot possibly know.”

            I never said that I was certain. I said that the scientific evidence has only supported that we don’t have free will in the classical sense. I never argue anything with certainty when it comes to science because we should always be amenable to change as more evidence is accumulated.

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