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John Hospers and free will – some remarks

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John Hospers (1918 -2011), US philosopher and first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party

The philosopher John Hospers lived to the ripe old age of 93 and died in 2011. His essay “What means this freedom?” was published in a 1961 philosophical compendium, Determinism and freedom in the age of modern science, edited by Sidney Hook, and reprinted in Free will and determinism, edited by Berofsky. I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly when the essay was written. The internet tells me Hospers was strongly associated with libertarianism, and was once a good friend of Ayn Rand, which strikes me as bizarre considering that the above-mentioned essay presents an argument against free will. Perhaps a closer study of the essay will clarify the apparent contradiction.

Hospers brings up the concept of unconscious motivation in his first paragraph. He reflects on a ‘criminal act’:

The deed may be planned, it may be carried out in cold calculation, it may spring from the agent’s character and be continuous with the rest of his behaviour, and it may be perfectly true that he could have done differently if he had wanted to; nonetheless his behaviour was brought about by unconscious conflicts developed in infancy, over which he had no control and of which (without training in psychiatry) he does not even have knowledge. He may even think he knows why he acted as he did, he may think he has conscious control over his actions, he may even think he is fully responsible for them; but he is not. Psychiatric casebooks provide hundreds of examples. The law and common sense, though puzzled sometimes by such cases, are gradually becoming aware that they exist; but at this early stage countless blunders still occur because neither the law nor the public in general is aware of the genesis of criminal actions.

The conscious/unconscious division, born of psychoanalysis, seems dated now, but there’s plenty of evidence of retarded neural development in childhood, and of the epigenetic effects of early developmental experiences, both pre- and post-natal. It’s also worth noting that Hospers here confines himself to ‘criminal actions’, without seeming to recognise the much wider implications of the determinist world we live in. Our deterministic world is massively more encompassing, something that perhaps remains hidden to many of us because of the more or less infinite variety of human individuals the chains of cause and effect produce. And, of course, because of the modern WEIRD emphasis on human freedom.

A problem with Hospers’ argument is that, as he claims above, it supposedly relies on ‘training in psychiatry’. In a marginal note to Hospers’ analysis of Hamlet’s inability to act, due to an unconscious ‘Oedipal conflict’, I wrote this, more than 40 years ago:

I can’t accept this – it suggests that someone else knows my motives better than I do. This is the insidious power structure on which psychoanalysis is built.

Of course it’s true that if you want an accurate description of a person’s character, you ask those who know her well rather than the person herself, because for sound evolutionary reasons, we emphasise our ‘best’ qualities and minimise our worst. However the psychiatric view misses a great many other factors in determining character – genetic, epigenetic, cultural, hormonal, traumatic, dietary, and probably countless others still insufficiently researched. All of these factors create a self, which, according to many ‘compatibilists’, including Sidney Hook in Berofsky’s collection, is the agent which ‘freely’ acts. What means this freedom, indeed!

It’s hardly Hospers’ fault that he didn’t widen the determining factors I’ve just mentioned, as so little was known about them, mid-twentieth century. And yet, much further along in his essay, he makes this extraordinary claim:

I want to make it clear that I have not been arguing for determinism.

And much of what follows makes little sense to me. The philosophical language, it seems to me, gets in the way of basic reasoning (not only here but in most of the essays in the Berofsky volume). For example, much is made  of the question ‘Are our powers innate or acquired?’ This is a non-issue. We acquire certain ‘powers’ or skills or world-views or whatever because of the family we’re born into, the zeitgeist that surrounds that family, and particular mentors or events that have influenced us, particularly at an early age. We have no control over our early brain development, over whether we’re attractive or ugly by our community’s standards, whether we’re short or tall, ‘black’ or ‘white’ skinned, or introduced as babies into the English or Tagalog language. And these factors and a thousand others heavily influence what we will become. To sort them into innate or acquired characteristics is largely a mug’s game.

Essentially the reason Hospers and others are fearful of the determinist label is the idea that all is ‘fixed’, that nothing could have been otherwise, or can be otherwise in the future. So what’s the use of trying? What I do tomorrow is already set. No need to think about it, to worry about what to wear to work, what to prepare for tomorrow’s lesson – it’s already taken care of. But that’s not how things work. What’s missing is the complexity of interacting determining factors that make us, the most hyper-social mammalian species on the planet, want to survive and thrive within the social web that has created us. Some of us, largely due to the luck of our early years and environment, are very good at doing this, sometimes to the detriment of others, sometimes not. Others are overwhelmed and seek to withdraw into a more ‘safe’ and static environment. In any case, things are not fixed, due to the dynamic, albeit determined, world that we have to negotiate constantly throughout our lives. A determined world is far from being predictable, because we’re constantly encountering unexpected events, conversations, challenges, requests, crises, accidents, insights, and so on. They often come at us thick and fast, and we must deal with them, determined though they be. And our own dealing with them has always been determined, because we dealt with them in this way and not that. How we deal with a situation in the future isn’t yet determined – nor is it entirely predictable, because the elements of that future situation are always unique, and complex.

To return to Hospers, let me analyse some remarks towards the end of his essay:

What of the charge that we could never have acted otherwise than we did? This, I submit, is not true. Here the proponents of … ‘soft determinism’ are quite right. I could have gone to the opera today instead of coming here; that is, if certain conditions had been different, I should have gone. I could have done many other things instead of what I did, if some condition or other had been different, specifically if my desire had been different.

Hospers goes on to examine ‘could’ as a ‘power word’, but in my view that is beside the point. The point, as Sabine Hossenfelder bluntly states in her video on free will, is that, given all the things you could have done in response to situation x (which are virtually infinite), you did y. And this decision was the result of all the impinging circumstances of the moment together with the character you have become due to a virtually infinite combination of historical events, neural connections, hormonal flows, genetic inheritances and so forth. Hospers mentions desire, as if this is something we have control over. I can attest that, when young, I became pathetically sick with desire for certain young women while unmoved by others who seemed equally attractive by general standards. I felt like the plaything of strong emotions which I wasn’t sure whether to feel proud of or ashamed of. I’ve also felt extremely violent emotions towards people who mistreated me, in my view, such as an old headmaster, but also toward long-dead dictators and war-mongers I’ve read about. None of these feelings are under my control. Nor is it really under my control that I haven’t acted on my violent or libidinous passions. My desire not to go to gaol or make a fool of myself, which are pretty commonplace desires, shared by the vast majority of people, have kept me well out of the spotlight. That desire is, of course, the result of experiences that have befallen me, and shaped me. Not of my own free will – whatever that means.


Free will and determinism, ed Bernard Berofsky, 1966


Written by stewart henderson

December 1, 2023 at 6:52 pm

more stuff on free will, agency, guilt and blame

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chained to the brain?

So I hear that Sam Bankman-Fried has been sentenced to 100-plus years imprisonment for fraud and other crimes. I have no interest whatsoever in cryptocurrency and I haven’t particularly followed this case, but I’m bemused by the absurdity of such lengthy sentences. To condemn someone to life imprisonment is bad enough,  but such ridiculous numbers suggest that there’s a competition going on, perhaps for getting an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Of course, the USA has a mortgage on such records. Not only does it have the highest per capita imprisonment rate in the world, it’s about the only country in the WEIRD world that still imposes the death penalty. Singapore, which has always been weird in its own way, is the only other one I can find. But, again, these ludicrous numbers… Here’s how one case was reported in The Conversation:

On July 15, a Virginia judge sentenced James Fields Jr. to a life sentence, plus 419 years, for killing Heather Heyer at the 2017 Charlottesville white nationalist rally by ramming his car into a crowd. Some may wonder about the point of a centuries-long sentence – far longer than a human could serve. As a criminal justice scholar and formerly an attorney in state criminal courts, I see their purpose as entirely symbolic. A 400-year sentence doesn’t prevent the possibility of the defendant being released on parole. However, Virginia abolished parole in 1995. About 20 states have abolished parole for some or all offenses.

In other words sentences are becoming ever more harsh in parts of the USA, for symbolic purposes. The article ends with the comment: ‘To put it lightly, we do things differently here’. I wouldn’t put it so lightly, but don’t get me started on the US judicial, political and social systems.

The juridical concept of guilt is, of course, central here, as is the related concept of agency. We convict a person of a crime if we decide that she is the fully responsible perpetrator of that crime, though nowadays, more than ever before, we take into account mitigating circumstances. And when a person is ‘found guilty’, by a jury or some other process, after pleading not guilty, she’s more often than not given a harsher sentence than otherwise, presumably for wasting the court’s time. And one thing a court generally doesn’t want to waste time on is all the events, experiences, emotions, influences and impulses that led her to carry out her illegal act. More likely it will be the impact of that act on others that will be the focus of the judge or jury. This is of course understandable – but what if this concept of agency is a myth, regardless of the guilt the agent feels, or doesn’t feel, as the case may be?

If the mythical nature of agency could be effectively demonstrated, the consequences would be – well, highly consequential. It isn’t just that our judicial system would be thrown into turmoil. Some would argue that this would be the least of our problems. To deny our sense of agency would be to take away our sense of freedom, our very raison d’être. How could this possibly be tolerable? And isn’t the idea completely absurd?

Well, not if we think it through properly. And this may mean avoiding ‘philosophical’ terms and conundrums such as ‘the law of excluded middle’ and the claim that, since we can’t change the past but we can change the future, ergo freedom.

So, if we have free will, or agency, and it’s granted that we’re mammals, do all other mammals have free will? Or does free will follow some sliding scale? If so, where to place rabbits, or mice, or kangaroos? Does it simply align with ‘intelligence’, that fuzzy concept, or neural complexity? But surely complex systems are no less determined than simple ones. It’s been said that the human brain is the most complex lump of matter in the known universe, and even if that’s just self-aggrandisement, it’s certainly true that this lump of matter and its extraordinary complexity has brought great return on investment in recent decades of research. And yet, it is, distinctly, the brain of a primate.

We’re also starting to look at the brains of other creatures noted for their intelligence, including cetaceans, elephants and tiny corvids. Does each member of these species have agency? Is agency an all or nothing thing? Presumably not – nobody would think of their beloved pet dog as an automaton. And yet its behaviour is more or less predictable – that’s what makes it loveable, and sometimes not. (Oh, and it’s OK to call our beloved dog ‘it’).

So we have to be careful with the term. Dogs are not ‘free agents’, they can only behave like dogs – yet less than that, they can only behave like the dogs they’ve become, in terms of the genetics of their breed, the way they’ve been treated and the experiences they’ve met with since early puppyhood.

Which brings us to us, with our passion for freedom, our pride in our achievements, our belief in justice and responsibility. We’re so different. That’s why we don’t process other badly behaved creatures through the criminal justice system. But in what way are we different? Surely not by being less determined. The vast majority of us accept a determined world, without which there would be no science, no if p then q logic, no lessons to be learned from history (and isn’t this the principal purpose of studying history?). It seems we treat fellow humans differently, just because we too are human. And we feel as if we could have behaved differently from the person we’re judging. But the fact is, we’re not the person we’re judging. We’re determined differently. And yet we just can’t let go of the idea that if we were in person X’s position, we would’ve behaved differently. But this idea is mistaken simply because we are not and never will be person X. We have no more right to judge her than to judge the vicious dog next door or the magpie that swoops at us during nesting season. But if we keep determinism in mind, at least we can come to the beginning of an understanding of these creatures’ behaviour.

So, in a recent family discussion I had on this topic – which turned out to be a bit of a ‘listen to me!’ ‘no, listen to me!’ to-and-fro – I was assailed by accounts of serial killers and paedophile rings. Because this introduced highly emotive notes to the conversation, it was hard to move forward or clarify issues. Imagine then a courtroom full of victims and their families, and add to it a media keen to provide the most sensational account of gruesome events, and it will be all the more unlikely to be able to reflect in terms of such ‘abstractions’ as agency and causality. Typically people will put themselves in the position of the perpetrator and ‘find’ that they could have resisted performing the crime, and of course they would be correct. They were not the perpetrator. That is precisely the point. This is, I think, a version of the informal ‘poisoning the well’ fallacy. In this case, it’s bringing up crimes so heinous that it’s hard to think rationally about the criminal. In effect, in court cases dealing with such extreme crimes, the crimes themselves take up so much of the oxygen in the room that the jurors become deliberative-oxygen-deprived, so to speak.

The word ‘guilt’ is an interesting one to contemplate. A person is guilty of an act (or omission) if that person committed the act or failed to act (e.g. to feed or otherwise care for her baby). It is of course always associated with an act or omission that has negative consequences, but it’s also a term associated with feelings. Free will advocates often argue that feelings of guilt are evidence for the knowledge that a person should have done otherwise. If you knew that it was wrong, but did it anyway, then you’re clearly guilty. In this scenario, those paedophiles who, allegedly, insist that their victims enjoy, or at least are not hurt by the paedophile’s behaviour are – what? Not so much guilty (though in terms of law they are) as sick? With an incurable disease? Perhaps this is so, but the hatred of them isn’t what is generally directed at a sick person. This hatred is considered justified because of the victims of course, and that is very understandable, but usually we don’t tend to cast blame on someone suffering from an incurable disease. Which brings me to another key word: blame.

The difference between guilt and blame is also an interesting one. We blame the weather for crop damage, but we don’t find it guilty. Someone or something gets blamed regardless of whether or not there was intention involved. So the term hovers in the space between cause and guilt, with effects on both. For example, if we get blamed for event x, this might well affect our sense of guilt about event x, regardless of whether we were the actual cause. Our complex brains can worry over such matters even to the point of insanity, and it’s arguably this sort of complexity we recognise and torture ourselves about as regards culpability (think of the parents of murderers or drug addicts etc) that reinforces our sense of free will.

So isn’t it essential for us to have, or believe in, free will, to see ourselves as the sometimes culpable and sometimes not so culpable actors that we are? And if there’s no free will, why should we ever feel guilt?

That’s something to explore next time.




Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2023 at 3:22 pm

free will, revisited

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yet to be read

I’ve written about free will before, here , and especially here, (the commentary at the end is particularly interesting, IMHO), and probably in other posts as well, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe it’s time for a refresher (though, if I say so myself, those earlier posts stand up pretty well).

I first became acquainted with and absorbed in the ‘philosophical’ argy-bargy about free will way back in the seventies, when I read Free Will and Determinism, a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky. It was published in 1966, and is, amazingly (since I’ve moved house about 50 times), still in my possession. Glancing through it again now brings back memories, but more importantly, the arguments, which mostly favour compatibilism, aka soft determinism, seem both naive and somewhat arrogant, if that’s the word. That is, they’re mostly variants of ‘of course we have free will – we display it in every decision we make – but many of us find it hard to present a rational explanation of it, so I’ll do it for you’. Only one philosopher, from memory, John Hospers, argued for ‘hard determinism’, that’s to say, for the absence of free will. And though I found his argument a bit clunky (it was largely based on Freudian and neo-Freudian psychology), it was the only one that really stuck in my mind, though I didn’t quite want to be convinced.

In more recent years, after reading Sam Harris’ short book on free will, and Robert Sapolsky’s treatment of the issue towards the end of his monumental book Behave, I’ve felt as if the scales have dropped from my eyes. Another factor I should mention was a talk I gave to the SA Humanist Society a few years ago on the subject, which didn’t quite go all the way on ‘no free will’, and a pointed question from one of the attendees left me floundering for a response. It was likely that experience that made me feel the need to revisit the issue more comprehensively. So, for memory lane’s sake, I’m going to reread these old essays and then comment on them. And hopefully I’ll be able to slip in a bonobo mention along the way!

I should mention, as Sapolsky does in Behave, that neurology has come a long way since the 1970s. More papers have been published in the field in the first two decades of the 21st century than in all the centuries before, which is hardly surprising. With this, and our greater understanding of genetics, epigenetics. developmental psychology and other fields relevant to the topic, it will behoove me to be fair to the thinking of intellectuals writing a number of generations before the present. However, I’m not interested in giving a historical account – how Cicero, or Augustine of Hippo, or Spinoza, or John Stuart Mill conceptualised the problem was very much a product of the zeitgeist of their era, combined with their unique gifts. The era I live in, in the particularly WEIRD country (Australia) that is my home, religion is fast receding, and the sciences of neurophysiology, endocrinology, genetics and primatology, among others, have revolutionised our understanding of what it is to be human, or sentient, or simply alive. And they help us to understand our uniquely determined situation and actions.

So let me begin with Berofsky’s introduction, in which he raises a ‘problem’ with determinism:

The fact that classical mechanics did not turn out to be the universal science of human nature suggests that contemporary proponents of determinism do not ally themselves to this particular theory. Many ally themselves to no particular theory at all, but try to define determinism in such a way that its rejection is not necessitated by the rejection of any particular scientific theory.

This takes us back to the effect upon the general public of such notions as ‘quantum indeterminacy’ and its manipulation by pedlars of ‘quantum woo’ (for example, The tao of physics, by Fritjof Capra, which I haven’t read). But clearly, however we might understand quantum superposition and action-at-a-distance, they have no effect at the macro level of brain development, genetic inheritance and the like, and they certainly can’t be used to defend the concept of free will. The ‘no free will’ argument does rely on determining factors, and openly so. Our genetic inheritance, the time and place of our birth, our family circumstances, our ethnicity, our diet, these are among many influences that we don’t see as ‘theoretical’, but factual.

Berofsky goes on to worry over types of causes and causal laws in what seems to me a rather fruitless ‘philosophical’ way.

A determinist, then, is a person who believes that all events (facts, states) are lawful in the sense, roughly, that for event e, there is a distinct event plus a (causal) law which asserts, ‘Whenever d, then e’.

The extremely general or universal character of this thesis has raised many questions, some of which concern the status of the thesis. Some have held the position as a necessary or a priori truth about the world. Others have insisted that determinism is itself a scientific theory, but much more general than most other scientific theories.

As you can imagine, none of this is of any concern to a working neurologist, biochemist or primatologist. In trying to determine how oxytocin levels affect behaviour in certain subjects, for example, they won’t be reflecting on a priori truths or causal laws, they’ll be looking at all the other possible confounding and co-determining factors that might contribute to the behaviour. It seems to me that traditional philosophical language is getting in the way here of attributing effects to causes, however partially.

Berofsky points out, in the name of some philosophers, that determinism isn’t a scientific theory in that it’s essentially unfalsifiable (my language, not his), as it can always be claimed that some so far undiscovered causal factor has contributed to the behaviour or effect. But scientists don’t consider determinism to be a theory, but rather the sine qua non of scientific practice, indeed of everyday life. We live in a world of becauses,  we eat because we’re hungry/it’s tasty/it’s healthy/it reminds us of childhood, etc. We don’t think like this in terms of laws. We needn’t think of it at all, just as a dog wags her tail when she sees her owner after a long absence (or not, if he’s also her abuser).

So much for determinism, over which too much verbiage has been employed. The real issue that exercises most people is free will, freedom, or agency. Here’s how Berofsky introduces the subject:

It has been maintained that if an action is determined, then the person was not performing the action of his own free will. For surely, it is argued, if the antecedent conditions are such that they uniquely determine by law the ensuing result (the action), then it was not within the power of the person to do otherwise. And a person doesfreely if, and only if, he could have done something other than A. Let us call this position ‘incompatibilism’. Incompatibilists usually conclude as well that if a person’s action is determined, then he is not morally responsible for having done it, since acting freely is a necessary condition of being morally responsible for the action.

This is a long-winded, i.e. typically philosophical way of putting the ‘no free will’ argument, which is usually countered by an ‘of course I could’ve done otherwise’ response, and the accusation that determinists are not just kill-joys but kill-freedoms. Presumably this would be a ‘compatibilist’ response, and many find it the only common-sense response, if we want to view ourselves as anything other than automatons.

But there are obvious problems with compatibilism, and here’s my ‘death by a thousand cuts’ response. There are a great many Big Things in our life about which we, indisputably, have no choice. No person, living or dead, got to choose the time and place of their birth, or conception. No person got to choose their parents, or their genetic inheritance. They had no choice as to how their brain, limbs, organs and so forth grew and developed whilst in the womb. So, no freedom of choice up to that time. When, then, did this freedom begin? The compatibilist would presumably argue – ‘when we make our own observations and inferences, which starts to happen more frequently as we grow’. And there would be much hand-waving about when this gradually starts to happen, until we’re our own autonomous selves, who could’ve done otherwise. And here we get to the response of Sam Harris and others, that this ‘self’ is a myth. I would put it differently, that the self is a useful marker for each person and their individuality. These selves are all determined, but they’re each uniquely determined, and at least this uniqueness is something we can salvage from the firm grip of determinism. What is mythical about the self is its self-determined nature.

As Berofsky puts it, guilt and remorse are strong indications, for compatibilists, that free will exists. I would add regret to those feelings, and I would admit, as does Sapolsky, that these strong, sometimes overwhelming feelings, based largely on the idea that we should have done otherwise, are our strongest arguments for rejecting the no free will position.

This issue of guilt needs to be looked at more closely, since our whole legal system is based on questions of guilt or innocence. I’ll reserve that for next time.


Bernard Berofsky, ed. Free will and determinism, 1966

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2017

Sam Harris, Free will, 2012

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

Written by stewart henderson

November 14, 2023 at 8:40 pm

on free will and libertarianism 1: introducing some issues

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I vaguely remember this book annoying me 35 years ago

Canto: So I’ve wanted to get back to this issue for some time, as it’s been on my mind, to connect an increasingly prevalent political ideology (or so it seems to me) with an increasingly tenuous philosophical position with regard to free will, but I’m not sure whether to start with the politics or the philosophy.

Jacinta: Well I think I can dispose of it all quite quickly. Free will’s a myth and individual freedom, however defined, has gotten us nowhere as a species. That’s it – so it’s off to the pub?

Canto: Well, that might be an interesting starting point, but I think we might need to put some flesh on the bones of those arguments, if I may cannibalise a cliché, or whatever.

Jacinta: Hmmm. So you really think there’s more to say?

Canto: Well I do feel the need to account for my change of position over several decades. Of course I’ve always been a determinist – the whole cause-effect relationship underpins our understanding of all human and non-human behaviour. I don’t think even quantum mechanics disrupts it too much, and to the extent it does, it certainly doesn’t do so in favour of human free will. But way back in the late seventies, when I was first introduced to the topic, ‘hard determinism’ as the term was then, was so out of fashion, and seemed to allow so little wiggle room for our actions, that I kind of assumed it was the province of attention-seeking extremists, or something. And of course it did seem a bit deflating to the human spirit, and all that.

Jacinta: So now you don’t mind a bit of deflation?

Canto: Well, over time, I reflected on my background, and perhaps also on the backgrounds of the philosophers and academics putting forward the compatibilist arguments – that somehow free will is compatible with determinism and even dependent on it. I found this later in Dennett’s book Elbow room, and I think there was some of it in Pinker’s The blank slate too. What I found was a kind of disdainful, and dare I say upper-middle class, attitude to ‘wrong-doers’ who need to be held accountable for their actions. And as a person who grew up in one of the most working-class and disadvantaged suburban regions in Australia, I felt defensive for the people around us (our family were better off than most), their bootlessness and despair. It certainly rubbed off on me in my teen years. I didn’t exactly bear a grudge against the world, but I certainly never had any inspiring teachers or adult figures who encouraged my scintillating intellect.

Jacinta: Okay, enough about you, what about the argument?

Canto: Well let’s look at free will first. The compatibilist argument is that free will is itself a determining factor in the decisions you make. You weigh the pros and cons in your mind, without undue influence from other sources, and determine to have tea with your breakfast instead of coffee, for the first time in months. Of course you’ve done this of your own free will, just as you’ve chosen to feed the dog instead of throwing her out of your 10th storey window, etc etc. The favourite term is ‘you could’ve done otherwise’.

Jacinta: But you didn’t.

Canto: And the feeling that you could’ve done otherwise is also determined, as is the feeling of regret that you quit that job when you should’ve stayed on, that you didn’t make that move interstate, that you didn’t keep in touch with person x, etc. The sense that we could have been better than what we are, could have done better than what we did, these are everyday feelings that we’re never free from. But getting back to compatibilists, they try to have the best of both worlds by claiming that the self is this autonomous determining factor in decision-making. It all revolves around this self. Presumably the developed self, since obviously the two-year-old self is not fully responsible for her actions.

Jacinta: Ah yes and there’s where it all falls apart. Where does this ‘self’ come from? We start as a fertilised egg, the width of a human hair. No brain, no heart, no belly, no skin, just genetic potential. Clearly we’re not making decisions. Nine months later, we’re born, fortunately with all those organs. But surely we’re not making our own decisions at this stage. And we’ve been subjected to a lot in this period, nutrients of all sorts, twists and turns, bumpings and grindings, the sounds of laughter, tears, music, shouts, squeals, long silences, all of which may influence our patterns of neural development both inside and outside the womb. All of which lay down the pattern of our future self, our future ‘free will’.

Canto: Yes, and from that time on its ‘meet the parents’, or caregivers, and/or our siblings and our homes, the furniture of our early lives. Not our choices. I think the no-free-will argument can be most persuasive when you can persuade the opposite side of the most obvious limitations, which are all big ones – for example you don’t get to choose your parents, your place or time of birth/conception, or even the species you were born into. So with those huge limitations accepted, you start to home in on the wiggle room the freewillers have left. Presuming they’re compatibilists, that’s to say determinists, they must accept that all that ultra-connecting and later trimming of neurons in early childhood has nothing to do with personal choice. And yet they try to argue that after all that connecting and trimming, when they’re a ‘fully determined self’, this self goes into auto mode, that of a self-determining self. Which presumably coincides with ‘adulthood’.

Jacinta: Right. As if our courts, or our laws, have solved the free will problem.

Canto: Yes, but it’s a bit like those claims for perpetual motion machines, that can produce output with no energy input. They’re as mythical as free will. The self is essentially only useful as an identifier, and it’s obviously very useful for that. And every self is unique, and perhaps that’s what confuses people. A person can be eccentric, ‘exceptionally different’, in good or bad ways, and we say ‘she’s really her own person’ or ‘she goes her own way’, and strictly speaking that can be said of everyone, whether human, fish or fowl, or of the plants on our balcony, or the jacarandas on our street, each one of which is unique, but not of their own free will.

Jacinta: We mistake complexity for free will, perhaps. Complexity is everywhere on this life-coated planet, but the human brain beats it all for complexity. We carry those things around, we feel it, and so we feel free, to possibly do anything, be anything, learn anything, commit anything. And feel proud when we do the ‘right’ thing, make the requisite effort and so on.

Canto: It’s arguable that this feeling of free will is important for our success. Or our striving. It’s up to you to work hard to pass that exam, to build a successful business, to become a regular in the first team, whatever. The sense of freedom can be exhilarating, though it might be just as obviously caused as the health-giving freedom ‘experienced’ by a plant moved from a nutrient-poor soil to a nutrient-rich one. Something in our environment makes us more successful than the guy down the road, or in Africa, but we don’t want to place too much emphasis on that environment, especially if we know we’ve put in an effort to succeed.

Jacinta: Okay, so what about punishment? As you’ve said, we might claim too much credit for our successes, isn’t a corollary that we place too much blame on those who ‘fail’, who give in to their peers’ world of violence and contempt? Punishment is mostly about deterrence, they say, but isn’t there a better way to treat people than this?

Canto: That’s an interesting question, and of course a complex one. We should talk about it next time.


Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2022 at 8:07 pm

returning to the race myth

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‘My own personal view is that today we over-privilege and fetishise the concept of identity’.

Mark Thomas,  Professor of evolutionary genetics, University  College, London (quoted in  Superior: the return of race science, by Angela Saini, 2019)

A couple of years ago I tackled issues of race and identity politics in a post which focussed on ‘blackface’ among other things. I don’t think there’s much I’d change about it, but my current reading of Angela Saini’s above-mentioned book, in particular the chapter ‘Roots’, which relates what anthropology has found regarding the first indicator of race amongst those who tend to obsess over it, namely skin colour, has updated my knowledge without really changing my outlook.

When we think of ‘white’ people one of the most obvious examples would be the pale, cold-weather Scots, of which I’m one. We’re not called WASPs for nothing. I was amused as an adult to find paperwork indicating that I was baptised as a Presbyterian. WTF is that? Another funny thing about my waspness is the fact that I’ve lived in sunny Australia since the age of five, my skin darkening quite splendidly every summer in the pre-sunblock era. Needless to say my intelligence dipped sharply during those months.

Saini relates a story about a 1903 archaeological discovery in Somerset, of one of the oldest human bodies ever found in Britain. Dating back some 10,000 years, he was given the name Cheddar Man as he was discovered in caves at Cheddar Gorge, and much more recently he was analysed by genetic sequencing. There was naturally a lot of interest in the genetics of this fellow, as English, or British, as cheddar cheese.

… what came as a real shock to many was that his bones… carried genetic signatures of skin pigmentation more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. It was probable, then, that Cheddar Man would have had dark skin. So dark, in fact, that by today’s standards he would be considered black.

Superior, Angela Saini, p167

Visual reconstructions based on the genetics also showed him to be far less WASP-looking than genteel society might condone. It was front-page news stuff, but experienced geneticists such as Mark Thomas were unfazed. The fact is that modern genomics has probably done more than anything else to scuttle the notions of fixed identities relating to blackness, whiteness, Europeaness, Asianess, Africaness, Scandinavianess or Irishness. In short the necessity of ness-ness ain’t necessarily so.

This has everything to do with genetic drift. As Thomas explains it, in pre-civilisation times, humans migrated in small groups, and would have varied physically (and of course in other ways) from those they separated from. Later, as groups grew and became more stable, there would have been an opposite effect, a greater homogeneity. Thus we see ‘Asians’, ‘Africans’ and ‘Europeans’, from our limited perspective, as near-eternal categories when in fact they’re relatively recent, and of course disintegrating with globalisation – an extremely recent phenomenon, genomically speaking.

On ‘blackness’ itself, that may have been a more recent phenomenon in our ancestry than ‘whiteness’. My good friends the bonobos, and their not-so-nice chimp cousins, tend to have light skin under their dark hair. As we moved forward in time from our ancestral link with chimps and bonobos, losing our body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands as we became more bipedal and used our speed for hunting, there would have been a selection preference for darker skin – again depending on particular environmental conditions and cultural practices. There is of course a quite large gap in our knowledge about early hominids (and there is controversy about how far back we should date the bonobo-human last common ancestor – identifying Graecopithecus as this ancestor tends to push the date further back) considering that Homo Habilis, which dates back, as far as we know, to 2.3 million years ago is the oldest member of our species identified so far. Beyond H habilis we have the Australopithecines, Ardipithecines, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis, among others, which may take us back some 7 million years. DNA analysis can only take us back a few thousand years, so I don’t know how we’re ever going to sort out our deeper ancestry.

In any case, the new racial ‘ideas’, given impetus by various thugocracies in the former Yugoslavia as well as today’s Burma/Myanmar, China, India and the USA (where it may yet lead to civil war) are an indication of the fragility of truth when confronted and assaulted by fixed and fiercely held beliefs. Social media has become one of the new and most effective weapons in this assault, and when thugocracies gain control of these weapons, they become so much more formidable.

Truth of course, is, and should be its own weapon against identity politics. Knowledge should be the antidote to these supposedly indelible identities, of blackness, whiteness, Jewishness, Hindu-ness and so on. Unfortunately, too many of us are interested in confirmation than in truth. In fact, according to the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The enigma of reason, we use reason more often to confirm beliefs that we want to be true than for any other purpose. And when enough of the ruling class are concerned to confirm erroneous beliefs that happen to advantage them, as is the case for the current Indian Hindu government, the result is a thugocracy that oppresses women as well as the so-called ‘untouchables’ and other victims of the two-thousand year old caste system.

But having just read the chapter entitled ‘Caste’ of Angela Saini’s book, I should modify those remarks. The current Indian government is only reinforcing a system the disadvantages of which are more clear to ex-pats like Saini (and some Indian students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching) than it is to those that remain and ‘belong’. It involves more than just caste and religion, as it’s practiced by Christians and others, and enforced by families and broader relational and cultural units. My own detachment from family and cultural constraints makes it easy for me to judge this rather harshly. And in faraway Australia we hear of the horrors of in-group fealty without feeling its comforts. And naturally as a working-class lad and anti-authoritarian my sympathies are definitely with the underclass.

So how do we overcome the inwardness of caste and class systems, which are ultimately destructive of genetic diversity, not to mention causing the immiseration of millions? The answer, also provided by Mercier and Sperber’s thesis, is interaction and argument. They argue that reason developed as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. Evidence of course also must play a part. Saini’s book provides an excellent example of this, and the scientific community generally does too. Mercier and Sperber give an interesting example of how the marketplace of ideas can produce effective results over time:

The British abolitionists didn’t invent most of the arguments against slavery. But they refined them, backed them with masses of evidence, increased their credibility by relying on trustworthy witnesses, and made them more accessible by allowing them to see life through a slave’s eyes. Debates, public meetings, and newspapers brought these strengthened arguments to a booming urban population. And it worked. People were convinced not only of the evils of slavery but also of the necessity of doing something about it. They petitioned, gave money, and – with the help of other factors, from economy to international politics – had first the slave trade and then slavery itself banned.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, H Mercier & D Sperber, p314

Some would say, of course, that slavery is still flourishing. I’ve even heard the claim that Jeff Bezos is the quintessential modern slave-owner. But nobody is credibly claiming today that slavery is reasonable. It has long ago lost the argument. That’s why evidence-based argument is our best hope for the future.


Superior: the return of race science, Angela Saini, 2019

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017.


Written by stewart henderson

June 17, 2021 at 8:51 pm

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am