an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Is free will a thing? Apparently not.

with 32 comments

Science appears to be cutting the gordian knot of philosophical isms

Canto: The subject of free will often comes up, and I’ve recently read Sam Harris’ booklet on it, so I want to state right now my view that if we do have free will, it’s a far more circumscribed thing than many prefer to believe, and I’m open to the view that it doesn’t exist at all.

Jacinta: Yes I’ve read a fair bit on the subject over the years, including Dennett’s Elbow Room in the eighties, and a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky, dating back to the sixties, but like everyone I’ve forgotten almost all of any book I’ve read within weeks of having read it, so it’ll be good to get back to the subject enfin. 

Canto: But have you been exercised by the actual subject, intellectually speaking?

Jacinta: Very much so. Let’s return to our old friend the Dunedin longitudinal study, which indicates that the various personality types – roughly characterised as well-adjusted, confident, reserved, under-controlled and inhibited – are established very early on and rarely change outside of neurological damage. These constrain free will, as does your broad environment, for example whether you’re a scion of the British aristocracy or the offspring of Mongolian goat-herders. You’re not free to choose these things or your genetic inheritance or, presumably, your neuronal wiring, at least not as a youngster.

Canto: I think the free will people would concede all that, but their best argument would be that in spite of all the determining factors that make you who you are, your moment-to-moment decisions – whether to get out of bed or sleep in for a while, whether to break your diet or stick to it, whether to watch a TV program or go to the pub, whether to study physics or psychology at uni (assuming you’re qualified to do either), and so on – these decisions are made of your own volition, so you are responsible for them and nobody else. If there’s no free will, there’s no responsibility, therefore nothing or nobody to praise or blame. And then where would we be with our ethics?

Jacinta: That’s interesting because we often get confused about that, or some people do. I would say most people believe we have free will, so we’re happy to punish people for criminal acts. They chose to commit them after all. But take those serial paedophiles that the tabloid press like to call ‘monsters’. They describe them as incorrigible – that’s to say, uncorrectable. So they should never be released again into the public, once they’ve been proven to commit some heinous paedophile act. What’s being claimed here is that the paedophile can’t help but commit these acts again and again – he has no choice, and presumably had no choice to begin with. But prison is a terrible punishment for someone who has no choice but to be what he is. They’re denying that he has free will, but punishing him for acts that should only be punished if they’re undertaken freely. You can’t have it both ways.

Canto: Well put, and my own tendency towards what used to be called hard determinism comes from reading the writings of ‘compatibilists’ or ‘reconciliationists’ who wanted, I thought, to give themselves as much credit for their success as they possibly could, seeing that they were successful academic philosophers earning, I assumed, the kind of salaries I could only dream of. On the other hand, as a hard determinist, I naturally wanted to blame everyone else, my parents, my working class environment, my lack of wealthy and educated connections, for my abject failures in life.

Jacinta: You jest a little, but I know you’re being essentially serious, in that the Gina Rineharts of the world, inheritors of millions, are the biggest spruikers of the notion that everyone is free to be as rich as everyone else but most people are just too slack, or, for reasons unfathomable to her, aren’t sufficiently interested in material self-enrichment, so they get precisely what they deserve.

Canto: Or what they’re destined to get. Just reading through some of that old philosophical material though, I find myself reliving my impatience with the academicism of philosophy. For example, the endless analysis of ‘able to’, as in ‘she’s able to play the piano’ but she can’t because she hasn’t got one right now. So she has the skill but not, right now, the equipment. Perhaps because she’s fallen on hard times and has had to sell it. Which leads to having ‘potential ability’. She might have been one of the world’s greatest soccer players, having the requisite skill, speed, drive, etc, but she was never introduced to the game or was discouraged from playing it.

Jacinta: She was told to study piano instead. Or more importantly, potential scientific geniuses who just didn’t get the opportunity due to a host of external circumstances, to attain that potential. They say geniuses are made not born, but they require external material to make themselves into geniuses, if that’s what they do. The point is that you can get caught up with words like ‘able to’ or ‘could have done otherwise’, which you can then interpret in varieties of ways, and it becomes almost a philosophy of language thing. But the main point is that although it seems obvious that you can choose between having a piece of cake before bedtime or not, these aren’t the most important choices..

Canto: And maybe even these choices aren’t as freely made as we might think, according to research Sam Harris cites in his essay. It seems science is catching up with what I knew all along. Not only do we have no control whatever over our genetic inheritance, but the way those genes are expressed, based largely on environmental factors, which lead to our brains being wired up in particular ways to release particular levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in patterned ways, leading to those character types identified in the Dunedin study, all of this is way beyond our conscious control. In fact it’s fair to say that the gradual retreat of the notion of free will is largely the result of the assault on the primacy of consciousness. Far more of what we do is less conscious than we think.

Jacinta: Yes the neurophysiological research around everyday ‘decisions’ is compelling, and disturbing to many. It suggests that our feeling of having freely decided on something is a delusion, though perhaps an evolutionarily useful one. Believing in free will usually entails belief in personal moral responsibility, and thus supports punishment for damaging acts and reward for heroic or beneficial ones. And  some research has actually shown that people primed to disbelieve in free will are more prepared to cheat and pilfer than those who aren’t.

Canto: So if this continues, this spread of disbelief or skepticism about free will, it may lead to a spike in criminal activity, large and small?

Jacinta: Well I don’t know if there’s been a rise in crime, but there has certainly been a rise in ‘my brain made me do it’ defenses. The effect of all this might be a ‘go with the flow’ attitude to pursue self-interest because your brain’s wiring supposedly impels you to.

Canto: So, that’s interesting, maybe a solution to this is more knowledge. The understanding that we’re the most social mammals on the planet, and that what we do, such as cheating and pilfering, adversely affects others, which will ultimately rebound on us. Even our brain’s own wiring has been caused by environmental factors, primary among those being human factors. So emphasising that our ‘self’ is more of a social self than our privileged access might lead us to believe will encourage us to consider what we owe to the wider society that helped shape us.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. And I think, as Harris and others point out, jettisoning the free will notion should help us reduce our tendency to blame and hate. I struggle myself with this – I ‘hate’ Trump, but I quickly realise he’s always been like this, and I can’t even blame his parents, who are what they are, etc. So I turn, as I think I should, to a US political system that enables such a person to reach the position he’s reached. In focusing on this system I can heap blame upon blame to my heart’s content, which I always love to do, without getting personal, which may have rebounding consequences for me. It’s a great solution.

Canto: Anyway, I think we’ve just scratched the surface with this one. Don’t we sometimes appear to agonise over decisions? People make lists of pros and cons about whether to spend x money or whether to travel to y, or whether or not to break up with z. How does this sort with a lack of free will? There must be a lot more to say.

Jacinta: It’s determined by our brain’s wiring that we agonise over some of our decisions and not over others. And how often do we make those lists you speak of, often prompted by others, and then just go with our original intuition?

Canto: Hmmm, I still think this is all worth further consideration…

Jacinta: I don’t think there’s any way you can seriously argue for free will. The argument is essentially about the consequences.


Sam Harris, Free will

Bernard Berofsky, ed, Free will and determinism


Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2018 at 10:16 am

32 Responses

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  1. I’ve read a lot of arguments against free will recently especially neurological studies which indicate the processes to reach a decision may even start upto 10 seconds before we become aware of them. Under a functional MRI the researcher may know even before you do what decision you are going to take.
    However, I’m not convinced free will doesn’t exist. It is self evident to me and the burden of proff lies in disproving it. The neurological studies seem to carry the greatest weight but I’m not convinced. The process that starts 10 seconds before awareness, what decides which process (among many) to start? Furthermore when we do become aware of it don’t we still have a choice to carry through with it?

    I do believe as your post suggests there are many constraints to free will, it’s not entirely free but that applies to almost anything in nature, everything with any form has constraints.


    May 16, 2018 at 1:32 am

    • Yes the intuitive evidence, the ‘direct access’ evidence for free will in that everyday ‘I could’ve done otherwise’ sense appears to be strong, but the deterministic evidence is watertight too, and not just in appearance. And as we learn more, and more experiments are done, I suspect that evidence will only get stronger. After all, the scientific research is all about deterministic pathways. We might learn more about what determines our ‘sense’ of free will. The whole scientific project, which is fundamentally deterministic, militates against any kind of floating or ‘ghostly’ free will, but that’s probably not what you’re talking about. The usual argument is that yes, everything is determined but we also have free will, or a strong sense of it, because we cannot and never will have access to the super-complex determining processes that lead to our decisions. It is just this view that recent research is undermining, I think. Our sense of control is looking more delusory.

      stewart henderson

      May 16, 2018 at 4:49 pm

      • I’m skeptical of the deterministic universe narrative there is no evidence to support it. The super-complex determining process that you suggest, it is an example of a hole that needs to be filled for the deterministic universe narrative to meet empirical standards.
        Yes, there is a multitude of evidence (practically all of science) to support deterministic pathways in set localized conditions but we can’t ignore the big gaps in between the transitions from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to sociology.

        It’s too early to claim there is no free will and that we only have a delusory sense of it.


        May 20, 2018 at 10:24 pm

      • Fizan, obviously there is free will. We empirically observe people confronted by issues that require a decision, evaluating their options, and choosing the one that seems best. If you’re worried about subconscious procedures, then just ask the person to work it out with pencil and paper. Lots of people enlist groups to make decisions, like Parent Teacher’s Association or clubs or churches or any other organization.

        When we observe such a process, we also observe reliable cause and effect, because people will bring up their reasons why one choice is better than another, and reasons are causes. So it is also obvious that making a decision of your own free will is a deterministic event.

        There can be no conflict between these two facts, because they are simultaneously true. When a person makes a decision of his own free will, according to his own purpose (cause) and his own reasons (more causes), then it is authentically free will and authentically deterministic.

        The madness is in the notion that reliable causation is something other than us, that exists as a force or object compelling us to act against our will. That’s superstitious nonsense.

        The historic paradox, of free will being incompatible with determinism, is a fraud. And its time everyone “got it” and “got over it”.

        Marvin Edwards

        May 21, 2018 at 4:13 am

      • Marvin, I agree with your thoughts and I did read your post on free will as well. I’m just going one step further and saying there is no evidence in the first place to believe in universal determinism at this point in time anyway.


        May 26, 2018 at 2:07 am

  2. Free will is not about intuition, but rather empirical observation. For example, we observe a woman going into a restaurant. She sits at a table, peruses the menu, and calls the waiter over to place her order. We ask her, “Why did you order the veggie burger and the salad?” She explains that, while she wants to satisfy her hunger and her tastes, she also wants to maintain her good health and appearance. She made a rational choice, one calculated to serve her own practical interests.

    We observe that she made this decision herself. She was not a child, whose parent decided for her what she would eat. And there was no one holding a gun to her head telling her what she must choose. In her reasoning, we saw no signs of mental illness, no hallucinations or delusions affecting her choice. And, as far as we know, no one had placed her under hypnosis.

    So, we observed someone making a decision of their own “free will”.

    By “will” we mean one’s intentions for the immediate or distant future. Her immediate goal was to satisfy her hunger by having lunch. Her more distant goal was to have a long and healthy life, by making good dietary choices.

    By “free” we mean she was free of any undue influences, such as those listed. She was free to choose for herself, rather than someone or something else making the choice for her.

    By observation then, we know two empirical facts: (1) that a choice was made and (2) that the woman herself made the choice.

    Marvin Edwards

    May 17, 2018 at 11:50 am

    • You’ve presented a fairly standard and well-recognised version of the free will argument. However there are problems. The woman in para 1, when asked about her choice, gives an admirably rational explanation for it, but an explanation isn’t a decision, it’s a narrative about a decision. There is no way for the hearer to know whether or not it’s a post-hoc rationalisation. In fact there’s no way for the woman who made the decision to know either. She feels certain she made the decision freely and carefully, but this feeling of certitude isn’t sufficient to prove free will. In fact there is increasing neurological evidence that decisions of the kind you describe are made before brain processes associated with conscious deliberation fire up.

      stewart henderson

      May 17, 2018 at 10:29 pm

      • Both of the neuroscientists I’ve read, Michael Graziano (“Consciousness and the Social Brain”) and Michael Gazzaniga (“Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain”), assert that there is both top-down as well as bottom up causation occurring in the brain.

        Whether the decision is made unconsciously, and then presented to awareness to make it verbally reportable, or whether conscious awareness participates in reviewing the result and occasionally sending it back to the drawing board for recalculation, it remains an empirical fact that nothing other than the woman made the choice. She is, after all, the brain that performed the operation, and the operation was initiated to serve her own interests.

        We are not talking about feelings or subjective experiences. We are speaking of the empirical facts of the matter. We know that a choice was made, because multiple options were input, comparatively evaluated, and a single choice was output. We know that the only physical object in the universe involved in performing this operation was the woman herself.

        There is a delusion involved here, but not one as to free will, but rather the delusion that universal causal inevitability is an object or force of nature that goes about causing things to happen. That is a reification fallacy that clumsy philosophers and scientists have allowed to distort our description of reality.

        Marvin Edwards

        May 17, 2018 at 11:52 pm

  3. Haha you need to avoid ad hominem remarks about clumsy philosophers or scientists (or autodidacts or dilettantes). Your claim that multiple options are inputed and comparatively evaluated before a decision is made is not based on any evidence. I highly doubt that this is how decisions are generally made.
    Take my dog. Sometimes she barks when people come to the door, sometimes not. I can’t see any rhyme or reason to it. She hasn’t informed me of her evaluations, relating to barking/not barking.
    Does my dog have free will? I would argue that she has exactly as much free will as I do.

    stewart henderson

    May 18, 2018 at 12:35 am

    • I would agree that your dog has free will, because it will sometimes run up against something new, and will experiment to discover whether it is friend or foe, and will learn from that experience.

      And, like your dog, you and I have accumulated habits over the years which we now perform without giving it a thought. Sam Harris has an example of this in his section titled “The Unconscious Origins of the Will”.

      He says he habitually has coffee each morning without thinking about it. He never considers tea. I assume that, at some point in the past, he found coffee to be a more rewarding experience than tea, and, wanting a morning stimulant, decided to have a cup of coffee each morning. He freely chose to have a cup of coffee each morning, and he is unlikely to revisit that decision. Not it is a habit, and he never gives it a thought.

      But suppose he ran out of coffee? If he’s never run out before, he will be forced to come up with alternatives and make a conscious choice. Perhaps a dash to the store to resupply the cupboard. Or maybe a stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way to work. Or perhaps he’ll give that tea another try. His choice will be an example of free will — unless his wife is coercing him to decaffeinate by dumping the coffee and putting her foot down, then it is her free will in play and not his.

      Next, Harris informs us of several neurological studies that show some types of “decisions” being made at a pre-conscious level, before the subject can report that he made the decision. But behavioral psychologists have demonstrated that the subconscious response can be conditioned (or deconditioned) through conscious efforts. Phobias are routinely treated by progressive exposures to the feared object until an extreme response is no longer triggered.

      So we might reasonably assume that some of these subconscious “decisions” may have resulted from past experience and even some previous conscious decisions. Regardless, “free will” usually refers to a new, conscious choice, rather than a subconscious reaction.

      But Harris wants to take it a step further. He says, “–I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know–it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?”

      Well, yes and no. You may have no choice about the necessity of eating or of balancing your checkbook. But you do choose which you will do first. And having chosen to balance your books, you have also chosen both your intent and what you will be thinking about.

      For some reason, Harris seems to be mystified at how thoughts arise in the mind. A rather odd position for a guy with a PhD in neuroscience to take.

      Marvin Edwards

      May 18, 2018 at 3:18 am

      • Thanks for your interesting response. I think one of the problems here lies in the concept of consciousness, a fraught concept if ever there was one. To take the example of phobias, the treatment, if effective, will involve making new neuronal connections, or damping down previous ones, which will alter our relationship to the feared object or state. To do this involves bringing the relationship, usually with the help of others, to ‘the front of our mind’, another set of neural pathways which have the power to interfere with the pathways that trigger the phobic response. We can ‘consciously’ alter the habits of a lifetime, especially if they become life-threatening, because ultimately our brains and nervous systems have evolved to preserve us, to lead us to change our habits when such preservation threatens us.
        The concept of free will can’t be uncoupled from a particular view of consciousness, I think. It remains to be seen whether that view of consciousness is tenable. I suspect not.

        stewart henderson

        May 18, 2018 at 7:58 am

      • You’re welcome. And I’d recommend Michael Graziano’s book, “Consciousness and the Social Brain”, if you’re looking for a coherent theory of consciousness. He describes “awareness” as a data set that tracks attention. Attention is a physical process where neural signals compete, and the winner gets roped into a feedback loop, which strengthens the signal and reinforces that set of connections. As a data set, awareness is basically a string of information that moves from object to object, or thought to thought.

        The brain must model reality with sufficient accuracy that we can deal with it effectively enough to survive. So this is like a symbolic representation and the brain calculates decision about macro objects. And this must include certain internal events (such as hunger, pain, etc) as well as external events, such as avoiding walking into walls.

        So, we have macro concepts such as doors and walls, and the self and others.

        Since the model is the only way by which we can know anything about reality, when it is accurate enough to be useful, then it is called “real”. When it is inaccurate enough to deceive us, like when we walk into a glass door, then the model is called an “illusion”.

        Graziano points out that the self has several illusions about itself, such as the out-of-body experience that occurs when there is an error in its self-location data.

        My point has been to assert the reality of the physical object, the biological organism, and the intelligent species that we appear to be. Our biology gives purpose to our behavior. Our intelligence allows us to calculate the best behavior to achieve that purpose. And all three of these things is real.

        Marvin Edwards

        May 18, 2018 at 12:19 pm

  4. Thanks again – I know that there are different theories/ views of consciousness that I’ve not looked into deeply, as yet. However the description of attention/awareness you present doesn’t seem to me to entail free will. The ‘data set’ would be different for everyone due to environmental, genetic, hormonal etc shaping forces. These would be the overwhelming factors – or perhaps I should say the only factors – that would inform our seemingly random, or seemingly ordered, movement from thought to thought. I was always impressed by the old Humean claim that reason is the slave of the passions. Now we would replace ‘passions’ with post-Darwinian understandings about genes and their expression as moderated by vast environmental processes, over which we have little control.

    stewart henderson

    May 19, 2018 at 9:09 am

    • Okay. Let’s be clear. In a universe of perfectly reliable cause and effect, it is a logical fact that every event that ever occurs is causally necessary/inevitable. And I believe we do have perfectly reliable cause and effect when we include all three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. Every event is always the inevitable result of some combination of physical, biological, or rational causation. So what? This is the perfectly deterministic universe in which we and all of our human concepts evolved. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that all of our concepts, including “freedom” and “will” and “control”, subsume reliable cause and effect. Therefore, free will cannot be defined as “the absence of reliable cause and effect”, that is nonsense. Free will can only be defined in terms of meaningful and relevant constraints upon our choices, such as coercion, mental illness, or other undue influences. (Besides, what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to what we would have done anyway. 🙂

      Marvin Edwards

      May 19, 2018 at 10:21 am

  5. Of course we live in a deterministic universe, and ultimately all can be reduced to physical causation. You mention three levels – the biological, yes, that can be analysed under the impulse, if that’s the right term, of all organisms to survive, thrive and reproduce. It’s the rational causation that I question. The idea seems to be that everybody is free to be reasonable. This is so obviously not so that it makes my blood boil when complacent, self-satisfied philosopher-types purvey this nonsense.
    Of course humans are capable of rationality – our extraordinarily sophisticated and far-reaching science and technology show this, but even the scientists who make transformative breakthroughs have their non-rational side, conditioned by the vagaries of upbringing, genetics and the zeitgeist of their time. Newton is the classic example, but go to virtually any meeting of scientists and you’ll find quite a few who you can’t help but feel are on the autism spectrum. And of course their blindness to certain factors and their intense focus on others will shape all their decisions.
    You talk about constraints on free will but you’ve gone nowhere near far enough. When I first read Dennett on this subject a long long time ago I found his blithe claim that we can always choose to do otherwise to be frankly offensive. Why? Because I was brought up in a quite depressed and impoverished region with a lot of dysfunction and crime, and found myself in a toxic family situation and attending a school that I hated. These were massive constraints, and I can tell you that there were no restaurants in the area where I could rationally choose the vegetarian option as best for my health! So in my early life, certainly, I encountered more drug pushers, addicts and petty criminals than I ever encountered philosophers. Could they have done otherwise? That’s so easy to say..
    This free will issue is enormously consequential, so it’s vital to get it right. To me you’re clearly underplaying the constraints on our choices. To give an example, I have a relative by marriage who is functionally illiterate and has spent most of his adult life in gaol for a variety of petty offences. He spent much of his early life living isolated in a featureless shack, his father arriving every so often to drop food off to him. He was taking hard drugs from his early teens. So you could say he had ‘meaningful and relevant constraints upon his choices’. Yes, that’s an extreme example, but every constraint that you trot out, such as ‘coercion’, ‘mental illness’ and ‘undue influences’??!! – could be explored in volumes of analysis for every human being on the planet.
    And another thing, haha – you say, perhaps surprisingly, that dogs have free will. Surprising because presumably you don’t believe that dogs are rational beings. I can only suppose you consider that they’re free to follow one impulse rather than another. Really? How does that work? And if it’s true for dogs, what about bees? Bacteria? Trees? Where does this free will start or stop?

    stewart henderson

    May 20, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    • All of the benefits of determinism come from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. Psychology and Sociology have value because they give us insight into the personal and social causes of human behavior. Knowing the causes is the first step toward correcting them. Oh, and then there is Politics, where we attempt to motivate society to address this or that social problem.

      On the other hand, there are zero practical benefits from knowing about universal causal inevitability. “Everything that ever happens is always causally necessary.” That’s all it can tell us. It gives us zero insight into how to fix anything. It is a logical fact, but a meaningless and irrelevant one.

      The rational mind acknowledges and then ignores universal causal inevitability. The irrational mind views it as a boogeyman puppet master that is pulling our strings, robbing us of any ability to control anything ourselves. And that is a perversion of what determinism actually offers us: a hope that by knowing the causes of events that affect our lives we become empowered to predict and perhaps event control them.

      And that’s a good example of your very correct point that not all reasoning produces rational choices.

      Nevertheless, it is the special mental processes, of imagining and reasoning, estimating the likely outcome of this or that choice, that we call “rationality”. So, I think that “rational causation” is what we would call it, regardless whether the final result is itself rational or irrational.

      I think that reasoning and choosing can be done without language. That’s why I’d grant free will to any animal that has the imagination to consider the possible outcomes of two options and choose the one most likely to produce the desired result. Squirrels will almost always find a way to get into your bird feeder, even though evolution was never able to hard code the notion of bird feeders into their instinctual behavior.

      While all physical objects may be reducible into atoms, the behavior of different organizations of matter cannot be explained with just Physics. There are no laws of Physics that explain why this inanimate cup of water flows down the hill, while this other inanimate cup of water hops into an automobile and goes grocery shopping.

      That’s why we have more than one science. Each science observes a given class of objects: inanimate (examples: Physics, Chemistry), biological (examples: Biology, Botany), or intelligent (examples: Psychology, Sociology). Based upon these observations, each science derives its deterministic “laws” that attempt to explain that behavior.

      Physics cannot explain why a car stops at a red light, because Physics does not spend any time observing living organisms or intelligent species. To do that requires an understanding of the biological desire to survive and the social laws created by intelligent creatures to communicate when it is legal to proceed through an intersection and when you must stop.

      Marvin Edwards

      May 20, 2018 at 3:38 pm

  6. Haha physics may soon give a full explanation of why (or rather, how) a car stops at a red light, once autonomous vehicles become the norm.
    I note that you have a fondness for the terms ‘rational and ‘irrational’ and I note also that they are terms I rarely use. For whatever reason I’ve rarely found a need for them, perhaps because I’m more interested in humans as animals, and in the mixture of drives that enable us, and other animals, to survive and thrive. Certainly the term ‘rational’ is more like a Platonic ideal than anything actually existing. It may be a useful invention, I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s a term much used in AI, for example. Algorithms may be rational, but the term is superfluous. More importantly, they’re something that works more or less effectively. So I tend to think of productive or unproductive decisions, rather than rational or irrational ones. And I think of that in the light of humans being the most social, and socially dependent, mammals on the planet, as far as I can see.
    When I say that the biological is reducible to the physical, I’m very well aware of the usefulness of different explanations involving chemistry, psychology and so forth (and I must say, given my rabid anti-authoritarianism, I do find your pontifical explanations quite amusing), and I’m sure I’ve written about this somewhere. Nevertheless without the laws of physics there would be nothing chemical or biological or psychological to act upon – I would leave it at that, rather than talk of ‘reducing to’. Sometime such talk is useful, sometimes not. Then again, I’m not sure that the laws of physics have been able to account for the coming into being of matter and fields of force…

    stewart henderson

    May 21, 2018 at 12:37 pm

    • Indeed. The self-driving car would appear to be all physics. Yet it has no reason, of its own, to go anywhere. The only objects in the physical universe that exhibit “purposeful” or “goal-directed” behavior would be living organisms. And the only objects that exhibit “deliberate” behavior would be intelligent species capable of the mental process of deliberation.

      Yeah, I do sound “pontifical”. Its probably a defense mechanism of some sort. Most likely a cover for some underlying insecurities. Being the son of Salvation Army captains, I’m both a “preacher’s kid” and an “officer’s brat”. But my father had a problem with women and guns, and died in a gunfight with the woman he was having an affair with. That led me to question the idea of Hell as eternal torment, and led to my eventual conversion to Humanism.

      Even the human brain is only so big. So we group and classify reality to make it effectively manageable. The table may be composed of some structure of innumerable separate atoms, but, if I can set my coffee cup on it without if falling through, then it is solid. The notion that we could account for the current state of each atom, to make predictions about where they will be and what they will be doing tomorrow, is a practical impossibility. But we can predict that my coffee cup will appear here again tomorrow morning if we deal with the macro objects involved, like the living organism seeking to manage reality for survival, and the “intelligent” species trying to maintain a routine for taking his cholesterol and blood pressure pills each morning.

      And since free will only exists in species capable of deliberation, through some form of verbal or nonverbal symbol manipulation, it is itself a concept that, along with every other human concept, deals with macro level “objects”. So, free will might be considered to be as solid as this table, because it makes a pragmatic distinction that helps us to deal with the reality in the only way we can.

      Marvin Edwards

      May 21, 2018 at 10:18 pm

      • I look at free will from a psycho-neurological perspective, that’s entirely the determinative issue. Let’s quickly move from the obvious constraints on free will to the less obvious. We’re not free to think like a bat, or a rat, or a dolphin. Or, presumably, an alien. Our neuronal circuitry, which defines us, doesn’t allow for it. This raises the trickier question of whether we’re free to think like our human neighbour. Our neuronal circuitry is different from hers. Our life experience is different from hers. Our genetic inheritance is different from hers. Neurologists like to point to people with brain tumours or brain injuries, noting they are different people, making different choices, before and after the event. With damage to the amygdala and associated regions, their approach to choices and consequences is forever altered. Phineas Gage is the most quoted example, but there are countless others. I’ve just been reading about toxoplasma gondii, a parasite in the gut of cats that can be transferred to other animals including humans, infecting their brain, particularly the amygdala. Those humans infected have a much higher risk of traffic accidents. They take more risks because their ability to weigh the consequences of risky behaviour is seriously affected. Of course it’s well known that young males also have a higher rate of motor accidents than others. It seems to be for much the same reasons, but without the toxoplasmata.
        People become different from the ‘norm’ – less responsible for their actions – because of tumours, strokes, parasitical infections. But what about a childhood of abuse, neglect, anti-social values? Did Phineas Gage have more responsibility for the person he was before than for the person he was after his accident? Personally. I’m skeptical.

        stewart henderson

        May 26, 2018 at 11:45 am

      • Couple thoughts. First, there are three impossible freedoms: freedom from reliable cause and effect, freedom from oneself, and freedom from reality. Because they are impossible, it would be irrational to require them in any use of the word “freedom”. Since we can’t, we don’t. This is especially true of the “free” in free will. Without reliable cause and effect, the will would be impotent to effect any intent. If the will were free from oneself, then it would be someone else’s will. And if the will were free from reality, then it would no longer be a will, but only a wish, within a dream.

        Second, no one is ever responsible for the person they are. People are only held responsible for the things they do. If they criminally harm someone, then society will want to protect itself from further harm until their behavior can be corrected. (a) If they were coerced into committing the crime, then they are easily corrected by removing the source of coercion. (b) If they were mentally ill or injured, then it may be possible to correct their behavior through medical treatment. (c) But if their capacity was sufficient to deliberately choose to do the harm, then we need to take the time and provide them with an opportunity for rehabilitation, which will also need their voluntary commitment to participate and seek to change their habits of thought and action.

        There are generally legal standards to determine whether their mental illness was an irresistible compulsion or just an ordinary mental uniqueness.

        Marvin Edwards

        May 26, 2018 at 1:08 pm

  7. My god this is incredibly frustrating. As I’ve regularly pointed out, the only freedom I’m interested in here is what you call the second freedom. The freedom from, or to be, or to create, oneself. Your distinction between what people are and what they do, needs a bit of work, to put it mildly. Similarly your blythe and mind-bogglingly shallow assertions about coercion, mental illness and ‘deliberative capacities’. And if there are legal standards about these things, they’re pretty arbitrary. Hence we have massive over-representation of black people in prisons in both Australia and the US.
    I’m sorry I’m getting tired of this, but I feel your complacency about the constraints on freedom prevent you from getting to the heart of the matter. Of course I take heart from the fact that I’m right and you’re not haha.

    stewart henderson

    May 26, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    • But that’s not a question of free will.

      That’s a social problem caused by a long history of white people assuming they are superior to darker races, such that they didn’t think twice about enslaving them and denying them basic human rights, and treating them as an inferior species, not quite human. In America they were bought and sold like cattle. To justify this, we assumed a collection of prejudices about their mental capacity and moral character. We taught these prejudices to our children and drummed it into theirs as well.

      Low expectations inevitably led to low aspirations which in turn inevitably led to low achievement. Thus we created our self-fulfilling prophecies and confirmed our prejudices.

      Affirmative Action sought to reverse the harm we had done. School integration forced us to see the reality of the black person as a person. Opening up higher education allowed their best to achieve the same career opportunities as our best.

      And the presence of these examples of black achievement in our society raised our expectations, which raised their aspirations, and led to further achievement and social progress toward reversing the massive harm we had done to the black race.

      But there’s still a long way to go. We still cling to our prejudices to avoid facing our guilt. And unemployment among blacks tends to track at double that among whites, leading to higher rates of crime and imprisonment.

      Although we cannot be free of who and what we are, what we are happens to include an ability to learn and adapt. People are free to seek to improve and change, especially when given the opportunity and assistance required to do so. And that includes us white people confronting and tackling our own prejudices.

      Marvin Edwards

      May 26, 2018 at 9:12 pm

      • Yes I agree with what you’ve said, apart from the first sentence, and other references to freedom. I’m sorry for being a little short-tempered, but I’ve started looking into the best pro-free-will arguments I can find, and I’ve found serious problems with all of them. I don’t think this is due to prejudice, but then I’m sure I’m not free of prejudice haha.
        I’ll write more about this on my main blog – though as an unregenerate dilettante I tend to be a jack of all subjects, master of none, so it’ll be a bit of a challenge for me. The difficulty, of course will be to square the lack of actual free will with the strong intuitive sense that we have it, and what that all means for personal and social responsibility, crime and punishment, etc.

        stewart henderson

        May 29, 2018 at 8:03 am

      • Leslie Allan, one of the contributors to the discussion group, pointed out that we don’t normally experience a “feeling” of free will, or any freedom for that matter, but rather that we feel is any constraints placed on our freedom. A child experiences the constraint of his mother’s choices overriding his own. The guy with a gun to his head feels the constraint of having to follow someone else’s instructions.

        But the absence of such constraints is only felt when they are present, and then lifted. For most autonomous adults, their freedom is not something they feel. It is just how things are.

        And that’s also how it is with reliable cause and effect. We take it for granted. And no one notices anything until something unexpected happens, and then they want to know why.

        The only time reliable cause and effect, itself, is experienced as constraint is when an incompatibilist talks you into seeing it as such. But what you will inevitably do is exactly the same as what you would have done anyway. It is indistinguishable from you just being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose.

        If you wish to address a social issue, to make the world a better place for everyone, then it is more effective to take on the issue itself and invest the time and energy to work with others to fix it. Going after free will is a very indirect and naive approach.

        And trying to get people to discard the idea of free will has the more significant and meaningful disadvantage of being false.

        Marvin Edwards

        May 29, 2018 at 9:18 am

  8. Ok I’ll continue the discussion here. I agree that we don’t consider the matter of free will in our daily lives. I won’t say that we should, nor do I say that we shouldn’t. Determinism is just a fact, but the details are generally beyond us, and life is short.
    Of course we should address social issues on a macro level, and we generally know how to deal with these issues because we’re aware of the determining factors (though there might not be the will, especially when the ruling classes benefit from the factors that disadvantage other classes). Addressing those larger scale determining factors will do a great deal to change the determining factors in the lives of individuals. So changing laws and attitudes on a larger scale is the first priority, but in the meantime passing judgments on individuals will also require, to do so properly, an understanding of the determining factors of her behaviour, which should involve a more sympathetic and humane response – even to the Donald Trumps of the world!

    But I want to return to another point. You’ve claimed free will for dogs because they learn from experience. Does this mean that if we successfully create a learning algorithm for an AI machine, that it also has free will? Is ‘learning’ a criterion for free will? What is learning exactly? We use vaccination to ‘teach’ our immune system to recognise pathogens in the future by feeding it with attenuated versions. Is that really learning? If not, what is it? Different species of bees learn, or they’re simply programmed to, collect nectar from different flower species. It’s what bees do, just as dogs bark at other dogs – sometimes. Whether a dog barks at another dog, or a car, or a door-knock, isn’t a decision of the dog, it has to do with an incredibly complex range of determining factors coming together in that place and at that time. Nevertheless the dog isn’t an automaton. It’s difficult to find language to capture it.

    Determinism runs all the way through. Yes, we have different levels of explanation, physical, chemical, neurological, psychological, and these levels are generally useful, but they shouldn’t be used to conceal the fact that determinism runs all the way though.

    stewart henderson

    June 1, 2018 at 11:21 am

    • People are often confused by the term “determinism”. And due to the reification fallacy, that even took in Albert Einstein, some philosophers and scientists view determinism as a causal agent, as an actor in the real world.

      The question is whether “that which is the dog” is the same thing as “that which chose to eat my slipper” (even though he’d been admonished not to eat my slippers more than once before), or whether “something that was not the dog” made that choice.

      Was it “something that was not the dog” that made the choice? (a) Is determinism something that was not the dog? (b) Did determinism make the choice rather than the dog?

      How would I go about saving my slippers if it was not the dog, but rather determinism that made the choice? How do I go about correcting determinism? I can’t!

      But I may yet be able to correct the behavior of my dog, with Brandon McMillan’s help (star of the CBS dog training show, “Lucky Dog”).

      The main distinction between a person and a computer is that a computer is a man-made machine, a tool that we create to do our will. It has no will of its own to be free or not.

      Passing judgment on humans is like passing judgment on dogs. First, we judge whether they actually did the deed (was is actually the cat that chewed my slippers?). Then we determine how best to correct the bad behavior for the future. (a) If the offender committed the crime because someone held a gun to his head, then we just remove the source of coercion and his behavior is okay again (lock up the gun, so the cat can’t get to it). (b) If the offender deliberately committed the crime for his own profit, then we need to address his thinking about such matters, through holding him responsible, counseling, education, job training, etc. (c) If the offender was under the influence of a mental injury or illness, then we want to treat that condition medically.

      Marvin Edwards

      June 1, 2018 at 12:48 pm

      • Hmmm. I posted a response to this a couple of days ago, or tried to, but it seems to have vanished.

        I’ll try again. There is no reification fallacy here. It’s the dog who does the deed, but there’s no choice involved. Few people going around thinking that dogs decide to do this or that (pace Lassie and Rin Tin Tin). They just do what dogs do. They can be trained out of doing certain things, just as humans can. We used to say that non-human animals behaved instinctively, but that has gone out of fashion, as it was seen, rightly, as a term to keep them in their place well below human animals. So now we try to kid ourselves that (some) animals make decisions like we do, using fuzzy terms like consciousness. Perhaps better to say that all animals behave instinctively, but only humans delude themselves into thinking otherwise.

        Your last paragraph starts okay, but where you go wrong, again, is in vastly understating, or not stating at all, the underlying determining factors in the commission of a crime. You say ‘the offender deliberately committed the crime for his own profit’, and leave it at that, as if this is an adequate description of an action, any action. In fact it doesn’t even begin to be the beginning of an adequate description. Of course the rest is okay – assuming the person’s action is seriously to the detriment of others, we need to counsel, train, educate, whatever, in order to prevent or discourage him from further crimes. Just as we might do with a dog who bites the neighbours.

        The key word to home in on here, of course, is ‘deliberately’. What most people do ‘deliberately’ is mostly a matter of habit, and if we did a deep neurological dive on our apparent ‘deliberations’, I’m pretty sure we’ll be unpleasantly surprised, if not shocked.

        To make a general point, the intuition that we obviously have free will seems to me another of those hubristic fallacies humans need to grow out of. Religions once taught us that we were in the image of gods, or God’s favourites; we once thought our Earth was the still centre of the universe with everything revolving around us; we thought that only we had souls and other creatures were automatons created for our pleasure, etc. Free will strikes me as another of those Grand Illusions, which science is on its way to dispelling.

        stewart henderson

        June 3, 2018 at 1:03 am

      • Science cannot dispel an empirical fact. They can explain how it happens, but their explanation does not change the fact that it did indeed happen. And, no matter how deep we dive into our neurology, it will always remain an empirical fact that it is our neurology that is doing the choosing.

        I believe it would also be the case that every habit began, at some point in the past, with a deliberate choice. So let’s look at a situation where a person has a brand new choice to make.

        Someone sits down in a new restaurant, one they’ve never been to before. They pick up the menu. A waiter comes over to take their order. After a few more moments, the customer tells the waiter what they’d like to order for dinner.

        We know by empirical observation that a choice occurred. “Choosing”, by definition, is a process by which multiple options are comparatively evaluated, and a single choice is output. And there is no disputing the fact that this happened.

        And we also know, again by empirical observation, who or what made the choice. It was that physical object sitting at the table, the object we call a “customer”, that did the choosing.

        And what was decided? The customer decided what he “will” eat for dinner that evening. He literally chose his “will”. He chose his intention for the immediate future. He decided which meal he would eat for dinner.

        Without ever knowing what went on inside his head, we can know from empirical observation that (1) a choice was made and (2) that the customer made that choice. No branch of science ever has, or ever will, contradict these two empirical facts. Because empirical facts are science’s primary source of truth.

        So, that brings us to the question of “freedom”, specifically free will. Well, what does “free will” mean?

        Is this “absolute freedom”? For example, does it mean that the customer was free to choose items that were not on the menu? No. Well then, if “free will” is not absolute, then what exactly do we mean that the customer’s choosing was “free from”?

        Do we mean free from reliable cause and effect? Well, no. The customer, as a living organism, pretty much relies upon reliable cause and effect to exist. It’s his heart reliably pumping blood throughout his body. It’s the electro-chemical processes in his neurology by which all his mental processes occur. It is required for his muscles to operate, so that he could feed himself the meal that he freely chose. So, no, we could not possibly mean “free from reliable cause and effect”.

        The common held and correctly applied understanding of “free will” is that we chose for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. And that is all that is required for both moral and legal responsibility.

        And it is that same sense of moral responsibility that drives us to address the social causes of crime, as well as addressing the behavior of the criminal.

        Marvin Edwards

        June 3, 2018 at 4:04 am

  9. I’m sorry but I’ve written two extensive responses to your last comment, both of which were wiped when I tried to send them. Apparently WordPress doesn’t like responses written over a couple of days.
    Now I will try again, writing offline and pasting.
    It’s better, I think, to describe a choice or a decision as an event than an ‘empirical fact’. An event is something requiring explanation. Events are the raw data of science, the starting points for analysis, measurement, the development and testing of hypotheses, the working out of theories. In any decision made, we will get clarification about why the decision was made only if insofar as we have sufficient information about the inputs into that decision – psychological, environmental, chemical and so forth.
    You’ve tried to describe choosing as a single fact, defined overarchingly as ‘a process by which multiple options are comparatively evaluated, and a single choice is output’. This, to me, is an obviously over-simplistic description. Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.
    Imagine just one person making a choice from a restaurant menu. Her choice will be constrained by many factors, e.g. limited understanding of the sometimes pretentious language of the menu, desire to impress her fellow diners, level of hunger, time constraints, concentration levels, comfort levels, food allergies or intolerances, experience of restaurant dining, and much more besides. To talk here of rational decision-making is essentially meaningless. Further, it would be impossible, from mere brief external observation – the waiter’s perspective – to determine why she chose what she did. It would be theoretically possible to do so, but that would entail a great deal of knowledge, including all of the above-mentioned factors, and also a brain scan which measures signals with the kind of granularity not yet achievable. Currently, it seems to me, free will is a kind of intellectual placeholder, being attributed precisely to the extent that we don’t have access to those determining factors. And maybe we never will, though we’re closing in on them – that’s the nature of science.
    This of course applies to the commission of crimes as well as to restaurant dining. You write of ‘common held and correctly applied’ definitions. As a language teacher I can certainly assure you that trying to tie what you presumably hope is an absolute and eternal description of free will (or anything else) to currently held definitions of terms will only end in disaster.

    stewart henderson

    June 11, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    • Yes, I’ve also had to resort to composing in a text editor first and then pasting into the comment (not so much here, but mostly with YouTube comments).

      The definition I use is short, but it corresponds to what most people would recognize as free will. Dictionaries usually have two definitions, the first is similar to mine (a decision we make for ourselves free of undue influence), the second is the “philosophical” definition (freedom from predestination or causal inevitability). For a study of what most people consider to be free will, see Dr Eddy Nahmias’s research here: You’ll find that most people are using the simpler first definition.

      If you have the time, you might want to peruse my recent post on the subject, located here:

      Marvin Edwards

      June 11, 2018 at 1:47 pm

  10. […] previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me […]

  11. Is the Sam Harris to whom you refer the same Sam Harris who wrote “The End of Faith?” He creates quite a compelling argument against belief in a god.

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