Jerry Coyne on free will

As I indicated yesterday, I am going to comment on the six pieces about free will published recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ll start with Jerry A. Coyne’s article entitled “You Don’t Have Free Will”.

Some preliminaries

This article contains points that I agree with (for example, that the expression “free will” is used in many ways or with many meanings) and points that I possibly agree with (for example, that we should drop free will talk). I do think it’s clear that many different definitions of “free will” are used, and I’m inclined to think that that, alone, might be a reason not to use the expression. It can mean that we are all just debating at cross-purposes.

At the same time, I wonder what the expression conveys to an ordinary person in ordinary discussion. Attempts to get that clear by the sort of conceptual analysis favoured by analytic philosophers don’t appear to me to have gone anywhere near settling this, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of empirical research on the subject. To an extent, I am relying on a hunch here, but the difficulty that philosophers have had, historically, in defining “free will” makes me wonder whether the meaning of the expression is clear at all, unless a meaning is actually stipulated for the purpose of debate. In that case, we might frequently be talking past each other when we use the term.

I also suspect that the term has various connotations that are troubling. It may be that when I say, “You have free will”, I at least connote something rather spooky that is likely to be false. At the same time, if I say, “You do not have free will”, I may at least connote certain fatalistic or passivist ideas that are also likely to be false. So perhaps, if I want to avoid misleading people, I should avoid saying either of those things. (But I’d like to see some more empirical research on what these statements, “You have free will” and “You do not have free will”, actually do connote to people.)

So I can agree with Professor Coyne that we might do best to avoid the term “free will” … and try, instead, to make whatever points need to be made with other language. At the same time, my reasons are, I think, a bit different from his.

Are compatibilists just saving face?

I do not agree with him when he says the following:

Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers — most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained — have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy.

I don’t think there is any reason at all to believe that; it strikes me as overly cynical. I can report, in my own case, that my past (and certainly not entirely buried) tendency towards compatibilism is not at all a face-saving device of this kind. It is a sincerely held position based on the view that we retain certain capacities even if our decisions are the product of a causally more-or-less deterministic process. Furthermore, reflection on what is important that reasonably falls within the ambit of the free will debate leads me to think that the capacities we retain are very important.

These capacities include: the ability to deliberate; the ability, more specifically, to deliberate about what I most value or desire in a situation; the ability to shape my own future to an extent, as a result of my choices; and, more generally, the ability to affect the future of my society and my world, to an extent, as a result of my choices. Some people – certain fatalists and passivists – seem to deny the latter abilities, at least.

Consider “soft determinism”, which is perhaps best regarded as a sub-set of compatibilism (if compatibilism is regarded as something like the view that free will and determinism are logically compatible whether or not determinism is actually true). Soft determinism might be interpreted as the claim that these fatalists and passivists are wrong, even though causal determinism is more-or-less correct. If that’s a plausible interpretation of what soft determinists are trying to say, then soft determinism seems like a position that is at least arguable and that people could hold sincerely. Once again, I see no reason to believe that people who hold these sorts of positions are insincere or trying to change the subject. So I reject this talk of “face-saving” and so on.

The “couldn’t have acted/chosen otherwise” argument

Still, is the Coyne position correct to this extent: We don’t have free will in the sense defined by the article?

The first problem is that the article relies on the claim that we live in a more-or-less deterministic world, including at the level of the brain. Things could get a bit complicated if it turns out that the brain functions in an indeterministic way (to some important degree), and I’m not at all sure that the actual science accomplished to date rules this out. However, the science may be suggestive, and in any event I’m not opposed to the claim, either temperamentally or philosophically, so in what follows I’ll assume its truth for the sake of argument. The claim seems plausible enough to me, at least, even if not definitively established. For the sake of argument, then, let’s assume that the brain (along with everything else) functions deterministically to whatever extent is needed for Professor Coyne’s argument to go through.

Does this rule out free will? Well, that’s going to depend on our definition of free will, and I’ve argued that this is unclear and that different definitions may be used sincerely and reasonably. Still, what if we use the idea of:

At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

Even this is problematic. The idea of “could have chosen otherwise” (which some philosophers do, indeed, use as a definition of free will) is at best equivocal.

On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.

What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? I was at the right place at the right time. I can swim. No special equipment that I lacked was actually needed … and so on. The parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise.

Surely there are many cases like this where the reason that I didn’t act otherwise was not any lack of capacity, equipment, being on the spot, etc., but merely that I didn’t want to act otherwise. The most salient thing determining how I acted was my desire-set. Leave everything else in place, but change my desire-set, and I would have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, it is true that I could have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

Suppose the tape is replayed. Suppose that determinism is sufficiently true that I end up making exactly the same decision for exactly the same reasons (I don’t want to get wet, I don’t like children and desire that as many as possible drown, or whatever my reasons might be). If determinism holds true to that extent (which, again, I am happy to stipulate), I’ll act in exactly the same way – speaking tenselessly, I don’t save the child. Professor Coyne says, and we’ll stipulate that he’s right: “free will means that your choice could have been different.”

But, Jerry, it could have been! It’s true that if the tape is replayed my choice will be the same. Putting it another way, it’s true that my choice wouldn’t be different if the tape were replayed. But the article is confusing wouldn’t with couldn’t. It’s a straightforward confusion of modality. As happened the first time, I could save the child in the perfectly familiar sense that I have whatever capacities, equipment, proximity, etc., are required. As happened the first time, the parents could and would rightly say to me, “It’s not that you couldn’t have; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

Now it’s true that my wants or values or goals, or whatever – my desire-set – may itself be determined causally. Indeed, I’m assuming throughout that this is so. I’m assuming (and I think this is reasonable, given the concessions I’ve made to causal determinism) that all these things are identical with states of my neurology that have a physical causal history. Perhaps that fact grounds some kind of argument against free will, if we imagine that free will involves some sort of ultimate capacity for self-creation. I agree that we don’t have free will – certainly on this picture – if “free will” means: “Free will all the way down.” Thus, on this picture, we don’t have free will of a kind that could be deployed in theodical arguments … my choices can be traced back eventually to the initial creative acts of God, if such exists.

But as long as the explanation as to why I didn’t act otherwise is just those states of my neurology – the ones that constitute my desire-set – the parents are quite right to complain that I could have chosen to do otherwise and saved their child. “You just didn’t want to,” they say, correctly. I was someone whose desire-set was such that I wouldn’t act otherwise in such circumstances, but I was not someone who couldn’t do so. Thus the “couldn’t act otherwise” argument, based on causal determinism, should not convince us that we lack free will. When I failed to save the child, I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise.

Leave a comment ?

153 Comments.

  1. For me, this is all semantics. The “you just didn’t want to” is not free will, because that is part of the determinism, and, actually defines it.

  2. I think that the debate over how to define free will mirrors the debate over moral error theory.

    You’ve got a general public that believes in something that’s either spooky or incoherent.

    Some people come along and point out the spookiness and incoherence, and argue that because the idea is spooky and incoherent or both, it isn’t true.

    Along comes another group of people who attempt to take advantage of the incoherence by claiming that its wrong to reject the idea unless you give it the strongest, most coherent definition you can. They then provide a definition that’s stronger and more coherent, and use the fact that its more coherent to defend the validity of their definition. Obviously a coherent definition is preferable to an incoherent one, right?

    Except the incoherence of the popular concept was a large part of the original problem.

    Sometimes its hard to believe that people who engage in this maneuver are being entirely intellectually honest. I’m sure some of them are. But it often seems like its just a distraction, or an effort at rescuing the ability of philosophers to access the discourse of the popularly held concept, while denying its truth amongst themselves.

    Its not uncommon for philosophical types to do this: I’ve heard it argued explicitly that philosophy should do this in reference to objective morality, I’ve got it on good report that theologians do this constantly with reference to aspects of popular faith they know aren’t true but need to accommodate amongst their faithful, and it seems like all the signs that this is going on are present in the debate over free will.

  3. NewEnglandBob, you say: “For me, this is all semantics. The ‘you just didn’t want to’ is not free will, because that is part of the determinism, and, actually defines it.”

    “mere semantics” — hah, as if clear use of language and the discussion of meaning weren’t essential to clear thinking and intellectual life generally. And on that score, your second sentence is bizarre to me; how is determinism “defined” by someone’s not wanting to do something? And in any case, your remark merely assumes that determinism and free will are incompatible, which is the point under debate.

  4. Patrick: you analyze the relationship between popular views or misconceptions and academic refinements quite astutely. You’re right that it’s not necessarily productive to clearly define vague ideas, because the vagueness of the ideas is itself a problem that needs to be scrutinized. But refining vague ideas is only dishonest if, as is often the case, it is done to kick up a smokescreen and prevent the vague ideas or misconceptions from being criticized. I am a moral error theorist myself, and think that academic definitions of morality often serve to mask the sheer vagueness of the concept as it works in everyday life. But a philosopher who tries to precisely discuss free will, as Blackford does in this article, and as many philosophers do, is not being dishonest so long as he is also still vocal in denouncing misconceived popular notions of free will.

  5. I think a useful way to avoid the question of definitions is to contrast humans with something we all agree lacks free will, like a contemporary computer. Yet a chess-playing computer has exactly the same ‘freedom’ you grant humans. It has the physical ability to make a different move, but it has a software equivalent to a desire set which is deterministic just like a humen’s. So that given the same history, it will always make the same move, just like a human will always make the same choice. But it _could_ have made a different move, it just _wouldn’t_ make a different move. Do you therefore think chess-playing computers have free will too?

  6. There are two underlying conflicting ideas here:

    1) The brain is a machine made of molecules and cells and therefore must be deterministic.
    2) We have free will because it seems obvious to us that we do and that people have responsibility for their choices.

    I do not understand why the first is assumed to override the second. Logically, we might conclude that as the second is true, complex molecular machines cannot be deterministic, although we don’t yet understand why. The existence of free will cannot, it seems to me, be ruled out as strong evidence against the idea that the machine that is the brain functions in the same way as machines that are many orders of magnitude more simple.

  7. I don’t think it’s true that free will is used in many conflicting ways – no more than any other controversial term, and much less than many. The philosophical debate is remarkably well-behaved. As to folk usage, there are 4 studies to my knowledge. One looked at the use in novels, three were discourse analyses. All recent,one as yet unpublished. They all show that ordinary people mean fw to refer to choices that are not compelled, coerced, or pressured, where there is time for deliberation and when there is something at stake.

    I agree with you on alternative possibilities, though most philosophers have dropped such a requirement for freedom. I’m with Lewis here. Vivhelin has updated the view nicely, analyzing abilities as clusters of dispositions.

  8. Mickey Mortimer:

    Exactly. Well said.

  9. Mickey Mortimer: the analysis is supposed to give you a component of free will, not the whole thing. There are additional requirements – eg, an epistemic condition. Does the computer have the ability to do otherwise? The nice thing about an analysis in terms of dispositions is that it allows one to avoid all or nothing answers. Let’s see how complex the dispositions to respond to various inputs are. The correct answer is probably going to be that it has a small degree of the ability.

  10. I think Jerry is unfairly pejorative about those who he thinks are mistaking the meaning of “free will”. I doubt that anyone is giving a definition they believe to be false in order to “save face” or for any other deliberate reason. Nevertheless it’s perfectly in order to argue that people are mistaken about the meaning, and to suggest that their mistake arises from their instinctive conviction that they have free will, which may lead them to be insufficiently skeptical about its existence.

    I suspect that you yourself, Russell, might take an analogous view with regard to moral naturalists. I know I do! But I think the case is clearer with regard to moral claims, as moral discourse is commonplace, so we have far more evidence from which to infer a folk or pre-theoretical meaning. I’m not sure that “free will” (as used in the claim that we have it or not) even has such a meaning, since it is arguably a concept invented by philosophers and theologians, and rarely used by the folk.

    On another point, Russell, I think the final section of your article misses its target:

    “On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to.”

    True, but Jerry makes it clear that this is not what he means. He is defining “free will” to be the property that one could have done otherwise given exactly the same prior circumstances, i.e. circumstances in which your wants were just as they actually were. You might argue that this is an unreasonably restrictive definition, but that particular section of your article purported to be discussing whether we have “free will” given Jerry’s definition, and not to be disputing the definition.

  11. Stephen Lawrence

    I agree with Russel Blackford on his point about could have done otherwise, yes we could have done otherwise, Jerry Coyne does get that wrong.

    What he is getting wrong ,exactly, is to believe could have done otherwise means could have done otherwise in the actual situation.

    The thing to get straight is that it doesn’t, not in the context of choice.

    What he is right about is that almost everybody makes the same mistake as him. So people do believe could have done otherwise means could have in the actual circumstances and that is what makes us blameworthy and praiseworthy.

    Does it matter that almost all of us make this slip?

    Yes I think it matters a great deal, If I’m disappointed with how I or someone else behaved it’s important to rememeber that in order to have behaved better that person would have required a different distant past, that in this very important sense they are unfortunate that they did not, as their distant past is beyond their control. It’s useful to be mindful of this in our daily lives and our morality should be aligned with this.

    So it’s good that Jerry Coyne is making these points. It would be even better if he got CHDO straightened out.

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Mickey Mortimer March 25, 2012 at 1:40 am
    “Do you therefore think chess-playing computers have free will too?”

    No. Chess computers are deterministic.

    Chess has a titanic history is the study of rationality and decision theory. Chess is not currently fashionable, but resurgence in interest is quite possible. For much of the 20th century, chess was a benchmark test between human players who believed they had the free will to choose the best move, and computer programmers who are still trying to prove that chess is a deterministic game. So far, the computers programmers are winning.

    The difference between “couldn’t” and “wouldn’t” is the remaining random element in computer programming. Chess programmers are trying to close that difference and remove randomness with a method called retrograde analysis. When that happens, “couldn’t” and “wouldn’t” will become the same thing. This has already been done with simpler game of checkers, which is officially a theoretical draw:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19839044/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/t/checkers-computer-becomes-invincible/

  13. I don’t like calling any argument by Blackford weak, but this one is. The difference between “couldn’t” and “wouldn’t”?

    Russell is confusing estimates of capability with actual capability. You can swim, and don’t need any special gear. So, anyone would guess, you’re quite capable of saving the child.

    But if you hate children, don’t want to get wet, and don’t care about the disapprobation of others, all in a sufficient degree to prevent you from actually saving the child, you are in fact *not* capable of saving the child.

    Put another way, what Coyne is saying is shorthand for “couldn’t be in a mental state that willed otherwise”, and it’s exactly correct for a deterministic universe.

    If you didn’t save the drowning child, for any complex of reasons, a replay would leave you with that exact same complex of reasons. You literally couldn’t do otherwise.

  14. Stephen Lawrence

    Thanny,

    I don’t think we use the word capable in the way you believe. I think most people believe we do, without reflection (which is the problem) but in fact we don’t.

    Take this example: A salesman in his showroom says to his customers that a car can do 0 to 60 in 7.3 seconds.

    Firstly note that can, is able to, has the capacity to, is capable of, has the power to, are all interchangeable. Second note that you didn’t bat an eye lid at what the salesman said. But why didn’t you? By your definition the car isn’t able to do that. Why? Because it is surrounded by four walls and doesn’t have enough room to get the speed up, it has no keys in the ignition, it doesn’t even have anyone pressing the accelerator.

    Put another way, can always does mean can if…

  15. Over at the Practical Ethics, I have written a long response to Brian Earp, which covers why Coyne’s remarks are simply irrelevant. In case anyone is interested,mits here:
    http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/03/the-will-is-caused-not-free/

  16. Whenever I read a strict incompatibilist’s rejection of free will (such as Jerry’s, or Thanny’s above), I think they’ve chosen a simple definition of free will just to make it easy to address, but in that simplicity they neglect everything that makes the question interesting to ask in the first place. Once they go back to talking about the interesting stuff, they sound more and more like compatibilists.

  17. Russell, I think Coyne’s qualifying of “could have done otherwise” with the rewinding example, forces you away from the connotation of “could” that you read into the situation. In other words, it is uncharitable or even wrong to make the case that “could” within the phrase “could have done otherwise” (in your quoting of Coyne) may mean only “if I had wanted to” since Coyne (assuming some kind of materialistic brain/mind structure) accepts that “if I had wanted to” is synonymous with “if the past had been different” or “if the brain/mind was different.” Anyways, that whole discussion just bottoms out in semantic quibbles and has little impact on our explanations of human behavior.

    The idea that “could” has been such a stumbling block to our talk about behavior is a discredit to philosophy (and to everyday language, perhaps) when this could have been slashed and burned and rephrased long ago into something that is not so troubling. And I think part of that problem, and I do blame compatibilist on this account to a certain degree, comes from a failure to rethink social structures and social discourses in more illuminating ways and in more radical ways; and of the inability of the “woman on the street” to speak more clearly, to read more philosophy.

    When you apply your statement and “intuition pump”:

    In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

    This is just a rehashing of ambiguous everyday language that can be structured and used differently, and then it is using that language to argue about behavior or properties of human beings (free will) in a way that will remain confused—and that seems unnecessary.

    Jerry’s use of “could” above is not wrong, he is using the “strong” version of could and he made it completely clear that was the version he was using, and that any other use would be connoting something into his language that was not there—but you chose to do that still. Jerry stepped outside the problematics of everyday language. He (and Harris really) pushes the “free will” question aside; pushes the two different and confusing versions of “could” aside; pushes everyday language aside; and are beginning to explain human behavior (or giving a framework to describing human behavior less problematically). And it is a more illuminating project than compatiblist incessant conserving of everyday language or everyday phrases.

    Hard Incompatiblists are absolutely capable of saying we want to create agents that will jump in and save people; agent who will “want” to jump in and save people. They can describe how the parents interactions with you (scorning you, telling the world you are a bad person, and the world ostracizing you) will help you be the kind of agent who does jump in. But we can explain these behaviors and the importance of intersubjective structuring of behavior without using confused everyday language like “free will” or “could have done otherwise,” or trying to discuss issues within these frameworks.

    This requires the capacity to step back from the agents that we are in our everyday lives and in our everyday actions, to stop trying to make sense and fit those musings into a proper framework, and take cold looks at what it is human beings are capable of and what they are doing.

    The next question, what did this woman mean when she said “you could have done otherwise” becomes superfluous to getting a good grasp on the baseline characteristics of human behavior, though it will obviously be important for other reasons.

  18. I should say that what we are, in the end, are complex machines, complex computers, like Watson from Jeopardy or a complex Chess computer.

    The inputs determine our outputs. We can analyze some of those immensely complex inputs and how they effect the outputs. Sociology, social theory, psychology, philosophy, the natural sciences, have been beginning to understand some of those structures for a while now.

    Nothing that special or “free” happens in between those inputs and outputs.

  19. Mickey Mortimer’s computer analogy provides some food for thought here, so far as I am concerned anyway. All the talk, conjecture, and philosophical pondering in the world will I think, not solve this problem. This for the simple fact, that the phenomenon is not open to scientific experiment, although neuroscience may have scratched the surface here and there. Well perhaps a little more than that, because the most recent entry to the dispute is the claim that my brain, not me, is responsible for whatever I do, whether it be considered morally right or wrong.
    One of the favourite claims of those supporting Free Will Is the expression that they could have done or decided otherwise. My problem here is how can they possibly know that? The only way open would be to return to the exact time and place a decision was made and see if an alternative path could be taken. My opinion in this connection is that were this possible then every particle in the system we call the Universe universe would again be as it was before, and accordingly the same decision would be emitted there from.
    Why do we continue to countenance the concept of free will? Dr Samuel Johnston is reported as saying “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it’ [Bos – 15.4.1778].” I think the belief in free will probably confers better survival value for the human organism. The fact that we have no control of our destiny is surely a repellent viewpoint. For instance why should we bother if we have no control? Additionally it offends against an anthropic principle which says that Humans are the most important entity in the universe and are something of a speciality. Science of course gradually erodes such a view, whilst Religion seems to reinforce it.
    Personally I would love to believe that I am fully in charge of what will become of me; all I have to do is the right things. if I can discover them I can accordingly shape my own future. Sadly I do not think this is the case; but paradoxically, I do conduct my life as if I did have free will, it feels as if I do, and I live as if I do. Such a feeling is I think innate it has survival value for the organism that is all.

  20. Neil Levy- “The nice thing about an analysis in terms of dispositions is that it allows one to avoid all or nothing answers. Let’s see how complex the dispositions to respond to various inputs are. The correct answer is probably going to be that it has a small degree of the ability.”

    In a deterministic universe, a disposition merely means we aren’t analyzing the system close enough. If you say that under certain variables, I have a disposition to perform action A 60% of the time, that just means there’s an unaccounted for variable I’m responding to in 60% of the situations. If we seem to have more complex dispositions than a computer, it’s only because we have more unaccounted for variables, but the number of variables or complexity of their interaction does not make us qualitatively different than computers.

    Dennis Sceviour- “No. Chess computers are deterministic.”

    Since Russell and the standard compatibilist specifically state humans are deterministic too yet have free will, your saying that chess computers’ determinism means they lack free will is an invalid argument.

  21. “These capacities include: the ability to deliberate; the ability, more specifically, to deliberate about what I most value or desire in a situation; the ability to shape my own future to an extent, as a result of my choices; and, more generally, the ability to affect the future of my society and my world, to an extent, as a result of my choices. Some people – certain fatalists and passivists – seem to deny the latter abilities, at least.”

    Who? A few people who post comments on blog or on newspaper articles, but almost everyone accepts (we have to accept) that people have these kinds of self-regulatory programs and structures. Certainly Coyne and Harris accept this kind of self-regulation, but they are going to break it down and say “why did this individual self-regulate in this manner at this time”; and say (under Coyne’s limitations on the word could) they could have not done otherwise than how they did. Which seems like the best way to analyze this individual’s situation at the time that they changed their baseline beliefs or desires, say.

    Humans go through these self-regulatory processes in the same way that the “algorithmic processes” and computing of Watson or a chess computer make sure they choose “good” answers, answers that help them win their games. The fact that they do not have the ability to self-regulate major conduct or desires is simply a structural situation that is not part of their reportoire, and not something that adds a new level of properties to their behavior.

  22. Mickey. I think you have misunderstood the dispositonalist position. Abilities, including the ability to do otherwise in the very same circumstances, are understood as bundles of dispositons. Having a disposition has nothing to do with how often or with what probability the dispositons is manifested. Indeterministic dispositons are possible, but the dispositonalist account is a compatibilist account and therefore assumes that determinism is true. The claim is that we have the ability to do otherwise, even if determinism is true (though of course if determinism is true is is determined that we won’t manifest the dispositon; I don’t need to manifest a dispositon to possess it. Similarly, we have abilities we don’t manifest; I don’t lose the ability to understand French when I am asleep). Sugar cubes have the dispositon to dissolve in water. Under appropriate conditions, they dissolve exactly 100% of the time.

  23. Dennis Sceviour

    Mickey Mortimer,
    I am mistaken, thank you. I should have said that determinism is the theory chess programmers are trying to achieve. The checkers programmers did mention that determinism had been proven only in computation, but not in general theory.

    I never said that chess computers do not have a free will. On the contrary, chess programs still have a random element; that is, the chess programmer cannot predict what move the computer will make. It remains to be seen whether programmers can remove the random (free will) part. Yes, I agree chess programs are still compatibilist for now.

    There is more food for thought akin to the disposition approach. If the programmer leaves the random subroutine in, even though the program does not use it, does the program still have a free will?

  24. After hearing so much of this free will talk lately, I am increasingly of the view that it is incoherent. In the simple situation where I have decided to act in either of two ways depending on output from a true random number generator (using eg a click from my Geiger counter), my action will be different if everything is rewound to that time ie the chain of causation for the act now starts at the Geiger counter. Is determinism no longer true?

  25. Stephen Lawrnce

    David,

    I think it turns out that whether determinism is true is neither here nor there. Take a coin toss, the coin can land on heads or tails, we can confirm this by tossing it a few times and getting both results.

    The thing is how are we getting the different results? We get them by placing the coin in slightly different circumstances which we call the same circumstances.

    What happens is we get confused about what we mean by the same circumstances and think we mean precisely the same circumstances.

    So it’s not that determinism is true it’s that could have done otherwise means could have done otherwise if… .

    When you question determinism you are looking for a mythological beast. The beast is could have done otherwise in the precise circumstances in a way that makes us blameworthy and praiseworthy.

    It’s impossible, the reality is we have the ability to do otherwise just like the coin can land on either heads or tails, in broader circumstances than the actual circumstances and it’s this that makes us morally responsible.

    But what happens for many of us when we get this straight is the way we feel about deserved outcomes changes as we realise that there but for circumstances go I.

    When thinking about morality we should work with a deterministic model of human behaviour the only way in which we can be responsibility is compatible with that and fairness/justice must be compatible with that.

  26. Hi Stephen:

    “So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely?” is a direct quote from the Coyne piece: he is talking determinism plus incompatibilism. My point about the randomized self-experimentation is that I have chosen for my subsequent action to be indeterminate (neglecting many worlds etc complications).

    You moved to the ordinary language of moral responsibility, and are arguing this can be reconciled with compatibilism? Sure, I agree with you. But how about desert and apportionment of blame? Our models of behaviour will only ever be statistical: if males are more likely to commit crimes than females, then female criminals are more blameworthy (they had to work harder at it)?

  27. Stephen Lawrnce

    Hi David,

    I don’t get the point of the experiment. One thing I’d say about it is in cases of choices which matter to you, you wouldn’t stick to the rules, it would only work with trivial choices like the choice between tea or coffee or what socks to wear.

    Our ordinary language of moral responsibility can and should be reconciled with determinism.

    I think when that is done we see the nature of blame and desert are not as we thought, so it does make a big difference. Or maybe it’s that desert disappears altogether? Not sure.

    We need to remember that who gets the rewards and who gets the penalties is a matter of luck (the good luck to have a favourable distant past or visa versa.

    I think this can change how we feel about inflicting suffering on people for what they have done, or allowing people to suffer because they brought it upon themselves and that this change can lead to moral progress with less suffering.

  28. Stephen Lawrnce

    Don,

    “Personally I would love to believe that I am fully in charge of what will become of me; all I have to do is the right things.”

    It’s close to correct to say you are fully in charge in this sense, but it misses the point.

    The question is what if the one possible future you can get to from your actual past is to do the wrong things?

  29. I’m intrigued, Russell, by your could/would distinction. I’ve been extremely critical of compatibilist, accusing them of what I call making striagonal moves. But your could/would distinction does indicate an argument that could give some credence to a compatibilist view.

    I will rephrase your argument to see if I got it right. Let’s say we have Person A and Person B. Both have the exact same physical abilities: they can swim, keep someone afloat while swimming and carry out CPR. The only important difference is that Person A is vain and will never risk ruining a favored set of clothes. Person B, although sartorially equally excellent and with a similar aesthetic, couldn’t care less.

    Now let’s imagine they find themselves on different occassions in the exact same situation you describe: witnessing a child drowning. They are both even wearing the same set of clothes. Person B saves the child, but Person A does not. Everything is deterministic here. Both persons were predisposed to act the way they did.

    On examination I don’t think I would say these persons have free will, and yet I daresay it clearly indicates why we can hold them morally responsible. The system constituting Person A acted based on priorities we deem incorrect, whereas Person B acted on priorities we deem appropriate. As what I suppose can be called a “soft” indeterminist, I’ve been focusing on showing that moral responsibility is not negated by a process being stochastic.

    Moral responsibility has long been considered predicated on free will. And I assume this is really the main contention of compatibilism: determinism does not negate moral responsibility. Given morality’s presumed predication on free will, it’s no wonder so many arguments have circled around this tricky topic. Indeterminists like myself thought for a long time that they were safe from all this. But then Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument even forced many of us on the defensive. Could its counterintuitive conclusion – that no none can be held responsible for anything, regardless – be true?

    I have focused on showing how even if a decision is to some degree random we can still hold someone responsible. Person B may be primed to not save the child. But, when push comes to shove, there is a small probability that Person B will still save the child (and vice versa, that Person A won’t). But most importantly: how is a person primed to act? Saying that someone is morally responsible is simply saying that they are primed to act as what we in retrospect consider appropriate.

    I think what you have helped show with your could/would distinction is that Strawson’s Basic Argument is not just partially but completely wrong! In your case the persons are determined to act as they do. That is to say, they are primed to 100%. And yet, we can hold them to account. With other words, moral responsibility is not predicated on whether there are free variables in a person’s behavior. Arguments about responsibility have been severed from free will. Determinists and indeterminists no longer have to quibble about whether someone is free to act to have productive discussion about ethics. Determinists can think in terms of personal predetermined priorities, and indeterminists in terms of indeterminate personal priming. The terms of one can be translated into terms of the other.

    I still think free will is an important topic. Its importance is in what type of legal and scientific theories we should generally focus on building: mechanistic or statistic. But we shouldn’t consider it the 38’th Parallel of Ethics. The Could/Would Argument is striking.

    Anyone interested in responsibility and causation can check out a recent thought experiment I created: The Stochastic Terrorist.

  30. Neil Levy- I did indeed misunderstand the dispositionalist position (that’s what I get for not being a philosopher), so I suppose I would ask you how human and computer dispositions differ that would cause the latter to have only “a small degree of the ability” to do otherwise?

  31. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “I think what you have helped show with your could/would distinction is that Strawson’s Basic Argument is not just partially but completely wrong! In your case the persons are determined to act as they do. That is to say, they are primed to 100%. And yet, we can hold them to account. ”

    Galen Strawsons argument is completely right. He is not arguing we cannot hold people responsible, he is arguing that people are not “ultimately responsible”.

    He explains what ultimate responsibility is supposed to be, it’s an incoherent concept but still people believe in it and it’s this he denies.

    Ultimate responsibility is the idea that what we do can be totally up to us. This is in contrast to determinism which is the concept that what we do depends upon circumstances beyond our control, our past experiences and genetic make up. “Luck swallows everything”.

  32. I still don’t think there’s any clear definition of the basic concept we’re debating, which is what makes debating the truth of it pretty difficult, if not impossible. We can allow all manner of supernatural anythings: the problem is that, even in completely unbounded, pure theory, I’ve never heard anyone give an account of how a decision gets made, such that a particular being is responsible for it, and yet such that their choice was not determined by their character or nature.

    Throw in as many non-deterministic elements as you wish: non-determinism isn’t the same thing as choice. The more you throw in, the less you seem able to say that a particular person is responsible for a particular choice. Making a choice is SOME sort of process, and if it is to be tied to a particular being, then it must be that that being’s nature accounts for the difference in their choices. The less it is, the less “responsible” they are for their choice.

    Free will doesn’t just seem to defy explanation because it’s hard to understand: it seems to survive as an idea ONLY as long as it cannot be explained. Because once we explain something, we’re talking about a process… with causes and effects. And to whatever degree any of the effects are without causes, they are simply no longer the responsibility of anyone in particular.

    How would anyone resolve this problem, even speculatively?

  33. If you assume that the universe is fully deterministic and that free will does not exist, can you explain why it feels as though we have free will?

    The alternative to that feeling would be that your desires or thought patterns may say ‘vanilla’ but you arm points to ‘chocolate’. You would be ‘trapped’ in a body that did not follow your ‘wishes’.

    I imagine that the feeling of free will has been achieved evolutionarily due to there being some discomfort in being a conscience being inside a deterministic body and finding that your actual desires are not reflected in your ‘choices’.

    However it is not clear to me how the mental discomfort would lead to selection pressure for ‘a feeling of choosing’ since the universe is physically determined and pays no heed to your interior mental state.

  34. Stephen, you’re right. But the adjective Strawlson adds that I forgot to include (i.e. ultimate) makes little difference. He’s just emphasizing that what matters is “where the buck stops”. According to him, by mere inference, we should blame the original cause more than the immediate cause. The men who held competitions on who could slit more throats in the Killing Fields are less to blame than Paul Pot. Ultimate blame is to be found not in immediate cause, but original cause. Nonsense.

    The buck did not stop at Harry Truman. The buck stopped at Paul Tibbits, Thomas Ferebee and Theodore “Dutch” von Kirk. Of these three Dutch is the only one who has been responsible enough to legitimately explore his ultimate responsibility. The complexities of their choices (including their lack of complete understanding about thermonuclear explosions) is immense. Nonetheless, they bore the heavy final burden. They are forever attached to the immediacy of the bomb fatefully pulled by gravity towards Hiroshima. And they owed to us the duty to explore their role and the necessity of their actions. Only Dutch fulfilled this duty and we owe him immense gratitude for this.

    Strawlson focuses on what event was caused by what event which was caused by what event (the reason you are the way you are). Flip that around and you get an event that caused an event that caused an event. And at the final event immediately preceding the event we are interested in, you have the ultimate cause (Person A and Person B). Not in some absurd infinitely distant original cause. You are they way you are because of what happened an infinitesimally small moment of time ago (assuming time is continuous). Had whatever happened an infinitesimally small time ago not happened, you would not be who you now are. You are responsible. You are the ultimate.

    Russell’s ingenious Could/Would Argument helps highlight this. I had only been focusing on Strawlson’s fallacious binary assumptions about indeterminacy. The Could/Would Argument made me realize the problems with the Basic Argument were even more basic than I had assumed. If you’re interested in an earlier argument of mine against Strawlson’s Basic Argument you can read it here: Can you be morally responsible?

  35. Stephen Lawrnce

    Drew,

    “I still don’t think there’s any clear definition of the basic concept we’re debating, which is what makes debating the truth of it pretty difficult, if not impossible”

    I think this is clear: The concept is could have done otherwise in the actual situation in a way that makes us responsible for our actions.

    This is supposed to overcome the luck of determinism and make the choice totally up to us so that we deserve rewards or penalties rather than are fortunate or unfortunate to receive them.

    The luck of determinism is this: Two people are similar and in similar circumstances. A makes a bad choice and B makes a good choice.

    Now if the universe had been in an appopiately slightly different state at their births, B would have made a bad choice and A would have made a good choice.

    So in a very important sense A was unlucky to have the wrong past.

    It’s this that most would deny and in doing so expess a belief in libertarian free will.

  36. Stephen Lawrnce

    Andrea,

    “Stephen, you’re right. But the adjective Strawlson adds that I forgot to include (i.e. ultimate) makes little difference.”

    This is what it’s all about. I think it matters a great deal as number of us have.

    ” He’s just emphasizing that what matters is “where the buck stops”.”

    No, the buck stops nowhere because nobody can be ultimately responsible.

    Assuming determinism with the genetic make up and life experiences a person got they could get to no other future from that past and if that future is bad they are unlucky to have had that genetic make up and life experiences.

  37. There’s a lot to digest here, and also in the useful thread that Neil pointed out over at Practical Ethics. I’m just popping in here to say that I’m doing my best to digest it and will try to make some substantial comments in response to at least some of the points. Meanwhile, I’m hoping to post tomorrow (hopefully more briefly) on the next Chronicle article (by Mele).

  38. Re Felix March 26th
    My submission of March 25th covers very briefly the point you are making here. Putting it crudely evolution has selected for an innate belief in Free Will ( the naughty child for instance says to its parents (“I will do as I like”). We are mostly content with this until philosophical exploration reveals that such may not be the case.
    What I cannot understand are the grounds upon which some argue that Free will exists because they could have done otherwise. Surely The expressions, ‘Free Will’ and “Can Do Otherwise” are in a sense synonymous. Thus the argument becomes I believe in Free will Because I believe in Free Will. As I have already asked, how could one possibly know one could have done otherwise. It surely feels like it, but that is no proof, no experiment can be conducted so far as I can see.

  39. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,
    I am glad to see you are still in the postings.

    The evolution argument does not make sense to me. Evolution is a function of population change and not of individual change. There is no reason for a population at large to develop an innate sense of free will. To me, free will has something to do with a theory of value. We feel life is more precious when we have choices. When there are no choices, life seems dull, terminal and pointless.

    I am still considering your position that the free will “phenomenon is not open to scientific experiment.” Do studies in artificial thinking try to experiment with and duplicate free will (for example, random number generators)?

  40. For Mickey (if she’s still around), a quick intro to dispositionalism. A disposition is a tendency (more or less strong) to behave in a certain way in a certain situation. On the dispositonalist analysis of abilities, an ability is a whole bundle of dispositions: someone who has the ability to speak French is someone of whom some open-ended, very big, collection of sentences is true, where these sentences are about how they would respond in various circumstances. But that’s just how we identify dispositions, not what they are. Roughly, dispositions are constituted by the physical properties of their bearers. So the disposition to dissolve in water is constituted by the bonds between the molecules of sugar crystals.

    Russell said two things about the ability to do otherwise: (1) an agent can do otherwise just in case they would do otherwise if they wanted and (2) it’s a matter of the capacities we have. The dispositionalist analysis helps us to pull these things apart, and that’s helpful, because many philosophers think that there is a decisive reason to reject (1). Suppose that I have a phobia regarding cats. Intuitively, it seems that I am not free to pat cats. But it is true that if I wanted to pat cats, I would. Dispositionalists think that identifying abilities with bundles of properties will enable us to avoid this problem. I am able to pat the cat if I would do so, holding my physical properties (including the properties of my brain) fixed. This move is inspired by David Lewis’s analysis of dispositions. He points out that if we understood fragility as the tendency to shatter when struck, we get the wrong result in certain cases (suppose Hermione Grainger would cast a spell on the vase that prevented it shattering, if and only if I tried to hit it with a hammer). Since the vase is fragile, Lewis says, but would not shatter if struck, we need to understand fragility as constituted by the underlying properties of the vase. The dispositionalist about free will says something similar: I can do otherwise if I have what it takes to do otherwise, where I have the abilities just in case I have the right set of properties.

  41. Andreas, if we keep digging into the brain (history/genes) of any individual the could/would will (theoretically under determinism) break down and will show that it was limiting our understanding of human behavior and properties.

    Going back to your analysis of vanity, you create a separation that many disagree with who are non-free-willist or those Against Moral Responsibility (Bruce Waller). You have separated the “self” of these would be savers into two (unnecessary) categories.

    On one hand you say they have these shared abilities: the capacity to swim, to carryout CPR, etc. . . .

    You then point to an additional property and say we should hold people “morally responsible” for this property—their vanity. This happens because we have failed to elucidate all the causes and reasons why this individual happens to be vain in their particular way at this particular time—and whether they ultimately had any control over that property at that time. “Morally responsible” here becomes a gloss for a failure of a certain set of causal determinants in the world to have come about—namely those determinants that would have prevented person B from being vain, those determinants and structures that person A was fortunate to have. In the end, Person B does not control these determining factors: it bottoms out in luck. Any of person B’s previous decisions or character building will fall victim to the same kind of analysis.

    Saying this person is “morally responsible” may play the additional role of discouraging person B, and others like person B, from being vain in the future—this discourse may be the causal determinant that changes the baseline character of person B and others. But we can accomplish all of this without ever claiming that person B was ever “free” in any capacity or had any “ultimate control” of why they are the way they are or that person B is morally responsible. In other words, the emotional and “blaming” effects of saying person B is morally responsible is an unnecessary structure for creating non-vain agents: there are better, more enlightened ways of creating such agents than through a discourse and everyday language that is rife with confusions, with “blaming” and fails to elucidate behavior and identity appropriately—it is a discourse that fails to bring all the “causal determinants” to the foreground and instead lumps them into the obscure property of “moral responsibility.”

    For starters, being more reflective about socialization/education of children will probably be the more direct way for creating agents who are not vain, as opposed to maintaining some elaborate discourse about “moral responsibility,” which you think will discourage or, at least, punish vanity in an agent (under the given scenario).

  42. Stephen Lawrence

    Dennis, Its not that we dont have choices. Options are things we can do if we want to. Can if… is no problem. People have the feeling there are numerous things they can do if they want because its true. But if the want arises or not depends on their past.

  43. Dennis Sceviour

    Stephen Lawrence,
    Interesting. The debate here concerns whether the will is free or the will is determined. The word would is just a tense for will, and may offer no insight into the understanding of the problem. Are you defining free will as meaning wants, as opposed to deterministic needs?

    How do you know what a person wants exclusively depends on their past?

  44. I don’t understand why critics of Coynian “hard Determinism” tend to shy away from the more damning rebuttal, namely that if humans are “automatons” (Coyne’s word) with no capacity to choose from alternatives (which Coyne calls “impossible,” given the laws of physics), then we also must forfeit any capacity to evaluate propositions, which is to say, to employ reason or logic, or to do science. Accepting a rejecting a rational assertion becomes, by this model, as meaningful an act as a rock rolling downhill.

    Since science and reason are the very justifications for claiming a deterministic universe in the first place, this makes Hard Determinism self-refuting. It also makes any defense of rational argument or scientific description as superior to fallacy or superstition entirely moot.

    Russell’s point about hard determinism being essentially non-responsive to any serious moral question (“why didn’t you save our son from drowning?”) is a good one, but it’s interesting to see how much more unravels if we pull at the thread more vigorously: to wit, most of Western Civilization.

  45. Stephen Lawrence

    Dennis,

    “How do you know what a person wants exclusively depends on their past?”

    I don’t, for sure. What I know is if determinism is true, what we do depends upon our distant past and so we are either lucky or unlucky to have the actual distant past we have, as our distant past is beyond our control.

    What I also know is we should assume determinism because introducing indeterminism cannot overcome this luck.

  46. Thanks for the response, Neil, but based on what you’ve said of dispositions, I don’t see how they are necessarily different in computers than they are in humans. Ignoring effects of quantum randomness, both humans and computers have numerous dispositions, each of which is a 100% tendency to behave a certain way given an exact situation. So when you break it down precisely, ‘disposition’ just seems like another way to say ‘reaction to a system’s properties’. But since you haven’t stated why you think dispositional differences from computers lead to freedom in human decisions, I can’t reply further without making assumptions.

  47. Stephen Lawrence,

    You showroom car analogy really doesn’t apply at all.

    You’re talking about capability for possible future events. The car would be capable of the given acceleration given the right circumstances (gas in the tank, long road under the wheels, running engine, etc.).

    If someone claimed (in a lawsuit, say) that a showroom car hit them while going 60mph, 7.3 seconds after the engine was started, we can certainly say as a matter of historical fact that the car was not capable of reaching 60mph in 7.3 seconds in that showroom.

    Capability in the context of a historical event is quite different from capability in future events with variable external influences.

    Back to the drowning, the person was not capable of effecting a rescue. While able to swim, he or she lacked a desire to save the child. In that historical event, the non-rescuer was not capable of doing otherwise.

    In future drowning child events, we can say that the person is capable of a rescue, given the right external influences. While the person might still have no intrinsic desire to save drowning children, there may be local laws that require intervention in such a circumstance. The person may then, for purely selfish reasons, choose to rescue the child.

    So it really is a case of confusing actual capability in a given event, with estimated capability in general.

  48. Re Dennis Sceviour March 27th
    Thanks for your reply. I am taken up with Brain Studies currently and hence not posting so much, or at such length. I am not sure I agree with your statement that Evolution is a function of population change. Surely the basic concept of Evolution is the survival of the fittest. With this in mind it seems to follow that survival value is better if we feel we are completely in charge and can bring about whatever we wish only subject to our own personal limitations. It is there for the taking if we are up to it, provided it is not logically nor technologically impossible. Imagine a population of creatures which believed they had no influence whatsoever over what is to become of them. Would they not be apathetic and but weak in their strivings to improve their lot. I suspect that many like myself who are sceptical concerning Free will nevertheless lead their lives as if they did in fact have it. The alternative seems a dismal fate and there is no problem in our feeling like we have free will it feels natural, but at bottom I think it is an evolutionary construct. I hasten to point out here that I only see Determinism as the better explanation in the same sense that Darwinism is a better explanation than Creationism; the whole situation is presently far from clear and what I have said above is certainly not ‘fireproof’. I might agree with you if you said Population change is a function of Evolution. However it seems If E is a function of P then P must be a function of E. I cannot think of any exceptions here.
    Re Random number generators. I think once a decision has been made the world moves on and it is not possible to replicate that point in time again. When we replicate an experiment in the laboratory we try as far as is possible to make again, all conditions similar. Some conditions are not critical and can be ignored, like say the time of day, or the ratio of males to females in the laboratory and so on. Replicating an experiment in Free will will demand embracing impossible reproductions, and many of these may be critical; say the meal you ate that day. The people you spoke to and what was said and so on.

  49. Thanny, you say: Back to the drowning, the person was not capable of effecting a rescue. While able to swim, he or she lacked a desire to save the child. In that historical event, the non-rescuer was not capable of doing otherwise.

    But that just seems like an assertion – you’ve given my no reason to think that the person could not have acted otherwise. I’ve given you a reason to believe the opposite – that he or she had all the necessary skills, proximity, equipment, etc. (and you can add, if you think it’s important, sufficient time to deliberate that he/she can’t truly say – “It all happened so fast!”). I’ve said that it will cut no ice with others if, in the end, what stopped the person from saving the child is merely that s/he didn’t want to.

    That seems a compelling argument to me that our ordinary concept of “could” doesn’t allow us to say someone “couldn’t have acted otherwise” merely because her desire set was such that she wouldn’t act otherwise in such a situation. I don’t see how you’ve refuted the argument; you’ve merely asserted that the conclusion is false.

    Someone else seemed to be making the point that I’ve been unfair to Jerry because Jerry is using the word “could” in an especially strong sense. In that sense, it’s true that we can never act otherwise than how we do, in fact, act. Perhaps so, but he can’t help himself to any such very strong sense of “could”. Why would we think that the meaning of “I have free will” is “I could act otherwise in a very strong sense of ‘could’.” That would just be special pleading to ensure that we reach the conclusion that no one has free will.

    There’s some plausibility to the claim that “I have free will” means something like “I could, at least sometimes, and in some important cases, choose to act otherwise than how I actually do act”. That’s actually a rather old-fashioned concept/definition of free will (I associate it with 1960s philosophical literature on the subject, but Neil would know more about that than me). However, it is not wildly implausible as a definition, and I haven’t objected to Jerry using such a definition. However, it loses whatever plausibility it had once we start stretching it by stipulating that we are, of course, using ordinary words like “can” and “could” in a special, strong way, such that I can’t do something if I am otherwise capable of doing it but don’t desire to do it.

  50. In answer to a point made by Neil – I agree with much of what Neil is saying, but I disagree with one major point that I’ll try to remember to get back to, and meanwhile I want to address this (possibly) minor point – I think there’s some ambiguity about how we treat such things as phobias.

    Suppose someone wants to pat my cat, but she has a phobia about cats. What is holding her back is not an inability to move her limbs, or lack of proximity (the cat is right there), or anything of the kind, yet she does not pat the cat. And yet, she claims she wants to; she “just can’t” because of the phobia.

    I think in our ordinary sense of “can” and “could” we could (!) go one of two ways. We could see the phobia as something that is, in a sense, an alien impediment – although it is part of her psychological makeup, she will find it an intrusion on her ability to carry out her desires. It’s an aspect of herself that, on another level, she rejects. It’s analogous, seen this way, to an external physical obstacle, and so we can feel free (!) to say that she “can’t” pat the cat, or “She couldn’t pat the cat when she was here yesterday.”

    In another sense, though, it’s natural to say, “She didn’t want to pat my cat because she’s scared of cats.”

    I don’t think the problem here is with the idea of “could” so much as with an ambivalence that we have about how to think of phobias – are they something alien to the person like external obstacles (doubtless, they often feel that way to those who suffer from them), or are they like ordinary fears, and thus to be treated as part of someone’s desire-set along with other hopes, fears, etc.?

    One problem for compatibilists will be if we all (or very large numbers of us) have psychologies that are deeply divided, in that we have impulses, attitudes, etc., that at another level, seem alien to us (or would if we were aware of them all). If human personalities are typically like that, then perhaps we’re all in a position similar to phobics – our possession of free will in large classes of cases is at least ambiguous. The empirical claim that this picture may be true, at least to an extent, seems, to me, to have some plausibility, and this style of argument actually strikes me as a bigger threat to ideas of free will than do arguments based on determinism. I hope also to touch on this issue when I talk about Mele’s piece, but we’ll see.

  51. Stephen Lawrence

    Thanny,

    “You’re talking about capability for possible future events.”

    I am able to play chess. I don’t just mean able for possible future events, I posses that ability now.

    ” The car would be capable of the given acceleration given the right circumstances (gas in the tank, long road under the wheels, running engine, etc.). ”

    What is the word capable doing in your example sentence? The car would accelerate at that rate if it were driven that way in those external conditions. It is capable because there are appropriate possible circumstances in which it would.

    Id be interested in examples of the words cabable or able, or the capacity or the power to, being used in the way you say, in reference to anything other than human beings. I think that would be telling.

    “Capability in the context of a historical event is quite different from capability in future events with variable external influences.”

    I think it’s the same, we vary influences when we think about what could have happened in the past just like we do when thinking about the future. That’s true even if we don’t notice we are doing it.

    Who ever is right about that, morally speaking the only sense to be made of could have done otherwise is could have if… what you call the general sense.

    Does that matter? yes. Quoting Russell: “The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.”

    Well yes they are likely to be unimpressed and such a tragedy will cause them great distress. But over time would the realisation that in order to do what they wanted you to do, you would have needed to have a different distant past, and you, just like them, were unlucky that you didn’t.

    Yes, I think that would reduce the blame and reduce the desire for your suffering and reduce the agonising of how could you, why didn’t you and so on.

    Why didn’t you? because you couldn’t get to that future from your actual past.

  52. Russell, the case you describe is not the one I had in mind. In my case, the agent does not want to pat the cat because of her phobia, yet it is true that if she wanted to, she would. Hence the problem for the conditionalist analysis. Your other remarks actually fit nicely with dispositonalism. To talk with Lewis, you are asking whether the relevant capacity is masked (or finked) or lost.

    In general: Lewis FTW.

  53. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Don Bird March 27, 2012 at 5:43 pm
    On the comment that you “think it is an evolutionary construct”:

    To prove Free Will is an evolutionary construct, it would be necessary to show one species has more free will than another species (or sub-species). I agree that at this time there is no scientific procedure to test this theory. However, the absence of scientific data does not mean that Free Will is an evolutionary construct. I agree that Determinism is a better explanation for evolution.

  54. It seems, Stephen, that I’m expressing myself poorly. I could be wrong but I believe I understand Strawson’s argument. And I think it’s absurd. But not in that it illustrates the absurdity of ultimate responsibility. The whole argument is itself absurd. It’s like those who use Kant’s concept of noumenon and say “see, no ultimate reality!”

    By choosing to define ultimate responsibility the way he does, Strawson renders the concept deliberately meaningless. He points at original cause. And, oops, it’s infinitely distant and infinitely unknowable. What we should point to is final cause. And we don’t need any strange teleological constructs so hated by reductionist determinists.

    Using reason unsoundly, we can of course get in trouble this way too. What proceeded the moment that proceeded the moment that proceeded the moment? Zeno’s paradox. We never get to final cause. But encapsulation quantifies our world into meaningful entities and time frames. The sum total of the processes that constitute Person A and Person B stand in immediacy before the experience of a drowning child. They are the ones we ultimately hold to account.

    It’s only marginally relevant that a stochastic evolutionary process brought them there to that moment. Poor unlucky bastards you say? Tough luck I say. Infinitely complex Process A and Process B now find themselves before the lever at the trolly track. What shall it be? Do you pull it or not? What Process A and Process B result in will determine the appropriateness of these processes.

    By Strawson’s deliberately absurd definition of ultimate responsibility, responsibility is infinitesimally small at the actual event and infinitely large at the original event. But it’s by necessity just the reverse. Responsibility is infinitely large at the actual event (which we can apprehend) and infinitesimally small at the original singularity (which is a mere conceptual construct).

    He also misconstrues what it means to make a free decision. He essentially claims the if you can choose – if you can do either/or – it’s like flipping a coin. Which is pretty much an insane way of making decisions. It is the very definition of irresponsible. Strawson paints a pastiche of what indeterminacy means.

    The human system must be seen a statistical computational device that determines a course of action by weighing multiple inputs. The system is until the event has occurred undecided, regardless if the choice is “conscious”. Or at least we don’t know what the decision will be with absolute certainty. Forget any “determinist” quantum mechanic mumbo jumbo for the moment (although I don’t think we should discard yet QM or some such similar theory as possibly being useful in modeling core neuronal/endocrine activity). For now, just think about how you yourself make decisions.

    The simple fact is we don’t know the exact mechanics of how we make decision (if we did AI would be a walk in the park). But how we decide is obviously not by completely random coin toss. But what we also do know is that when placed in similar situations, the same person doesn’t always do the same thing. If they did they would have ended up as meat devoured by a short-faced bear. And yet, as mentioned, they also don’t always make different decisions. It’s more like 80/20 or whatever with a small sprinkle of insanity here and there just to throw your predators off. People vary from being completely predictable to very unpredictable based on circumstantial needs.

    This discussion is extremely important because with Strawson’s approach (which, as is clear by now, I think is erroneous), all responsibility is absurdly mitigated into oblivion. Oh, it wasn’t my fault. I’m genetically a sociopath. I couldn’t help myself.

    If Strawson is right, well, then Strawson is right. And we should have infinite forgiveness for all things. But I don’t think he is and I think it’s appropriate to be judgmental when people make obviously wrong-headed decisions, whatever their excuse. It doesn’t mean we punish people just because, hey, it’s their fault. What we need to find out is how to help people, and hence society, to make better decisions next time around. We need to try to rehabilitate. But some persons are pretty much beyond helping.

    Obviously scientifically finding out how people might hypothetically act in a hypothetical situation can increase their chance (through education, etc.) of making what’s in retrospect deemed the right choices in the context of an actual event. This is what is called priming. To think we will ever know or be able to influence with absolute certainty how someone will act under all circumstance – to think we can prime to 100% – is equivalent to thinking we will become God. I suspect mechanistic determinists think they have a little Laplacian demon on their shoulder that they can tame. Statistics, statistics, statistic. It’s the wave of the future (pun intended).

    My low down on the Basic Argument is pretty much the same as for modern versions of the Ontological Argument: it’s rational idealism gone amok. All these types of arguments are essentially spin offs of of the idea expressed in the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which is an erroneous principle. It’s residuals of a mechanistic 17’th century when clocks were the high tech of the day. Today our frustration with making electronic computers think should have taught us that what is amazing is the statistical computational device we call an aware animal. But however amazing they are they sometimes do the wrong thing. And, by necessity of evolution, it’s them as a complete and distinct system we can (and necessarily must) ultimately hold to account.

    If you are interested in further thoughts of mine regarding PSR: Explain( Explain )…Or How I came to be God

  55. My link was a dud. Here it is again for those who are interested: Explain( Explain )…Or How I came to be God

  56. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “It’s only marginally relevant that a stochastic evolutionary process brought them there to that moment. Poor unlucky bastards you say? Tough luck I say”

    Although, perhaps a stochastic evolutionary process brought them there, what ever responsibility they have must be compatible with determinism (one future they can get to from their actual distant past)

    Are you accepting that Andreas, I’m not sure?

    If you don’t accept that you believe in ultimate responsibility.

    If you do accept it, then, as you say, if someone is going to make a bad choice it is tough luck. The tough luck is that they couldn’t get to a different future from that past, so they are unlucky to have that past.

    Tough luck is in contrast with them deserving to suffer as a result of the choice they make. that is because deserving to suffer means it’s fair to them that it happens to them, rather than they are unlucky to find they are the people with the bad past.

  57. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00z5y9z

    ‘Introductory’ but might interest some. Simon Blackburn, Helen Beebee & Galen Strawson discussing free will with Melvyn Bragg on BBC radio programme ‘In Our Time’ from last year. (Think its available outside UK).

  58. Stephen, I used the word stochastic as opposed to random to avoid the quite complex discussion of what random means. Yes, stochastic is usually associated with non-deterministic processes, but strictly includes processes thought to be deterministic but that in practice can only be modeled stochastically (because the variables of all inputs are not currently known).

    If you can model actual evolution as a non-stochastic process, I’m all ears and you are without doubt about to become the most famous person in all of human history. We can model evolution deterministically in a 2 dimensional Game of Life. But to therefore conclude we are about to crack the secret of our own future is an immense leap of faith. For now, and the foreseeable future, any use of the word evolution can safely be proceeded by the adjective stochastic. Whether the variability involved in the process is some form of fundamental “randomness” or not is as yet an unknown. What is certain is that we can assume that no observer anno 2012 would fully understand what brought hypothetical Process A and Process B to our hypothetically drowning child. Some guesswork will undoubtably be involved.

    My argument is not really predicated on how stochastic the process is. Neither is Strawson’s, according to his own claims. The critical part is what ultimate responsibility means. I’m saying how Strawson understands ultimate responsibility is rational idealistic nonsense. Let me try to formulate how I think Strawson sees it and how I myself approach it in another way than I already have.

    Strawson seems to trace responsibility step by step to it’s “root cause”. He rejects that there can be ultimate responsibility if the causal chain is interrupted by anything purely random since no one had anything to do with it, including supposedly you (even, strangely, if it occurs inside you). It’s pure luck. And we don’t congratulate people who win the lottery for their hard work and think they earned their reward. There can only be ultimate responsibility if you can find a legitimate reason for the reason for the reason. And at the end of those reasons has to stand YOU. If we trace the reasons of the reasons of the reasons to the original reason and we find not YOU but someone or something else, then you cannot ultimately be held responsible. The other someone or something must be held to account.

    Well, obviously if we go on like this, only one thing can be ultimately responsible: the origin of everything. God. The Singularity. Whatever. Take your pick. And if at any point in our analysis “randomness” (whatever that means) is found, end of process. Boom, luck percolates back down the chain to Person A and Person B. So the conclusion must be that ultimate responsibility is an absurd concept. Ouch! What now? Well, I guess we just have to follow some eastern yogi and transcend the whole samsara thing into nirvana. Ultimate responsibility is an illusion of the unenlightened. Ignore the falsehoods of your worldly sensations!

    But according to me we only got to this absurd conclusion because of how ultimate responsibility was absurdly defined. Ultimate responsibility is a judgement about the entire Process A and Process B now being expressed in Person A and Person B, not some step by step pearl game based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason. We don’t even have to know everything about Process A and Process B. We judge things by their result based on a limited set of requirements. I’m a software engineer. I build systems consisting of the interplay of many partially decoupled systems. Some parts are not even created by people I know. They are black boxes to me. I ultimately and necessarily judge them by their result, not the logical switching they cause inside electronic components. Whether they operate on deterministic computers or quantum devices, I couldn’t care less.

    What I do to solve the problem of undesired results depends. But before I even get to this I have to determine which results are undesirable given my requirements, which even in logical software systems can sometimes be harder than one might imagine. I see moral judgments as being just this: is the outcome of Process X encapsulated in Person X desirable based on our requirements for processes of Type X? That’s the ultimate question, not whose at the end of the line and where it all started…

    What I think we can agree on is that the death of a child is under almost all circumstances undesirable. If Person A fails to save the drowning child despite having all the prerequisite skills, then I think most of us sense that something is wrong. We feel that Person A could have acted and therefore should have acted. And yet Person A wouldn’t. This sensation has evolved for a good reason. And it’s not because we would feel so miserable if we though we were out of control. It’s because children need to be saved. Person A could’ve but wouldn’t. We have to do something about Person A so that next time they will. Of course, now comes an even bigger question: what to do about and with Person A to achieve this. Can anything even be done? And if we deem not, then what?

    By the way, I can hear the following question coming: can “automatons” like robots ultimately be held responsible? Hmmm…. my initial intuition tells me… yes…

  59. Thank you for that link, Jim! It’s a great introduction to the topic. And it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable with being so harshly critical of such a seemingly civil chap as Strawson. I really regret having once accused such a thoughtful person of “bamboozling” us. If his point is that it’s useless to mete out eternal infernal punishments, then fine. But I think this is not the only conclusion one must draw from his seemingly “case closed” but ultimately flawed argument.

  60. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    As long as the responsibility you believe in is compatible with determinism there is no problem.

    As I say most people believe in something other than that, which is it can serve a person right to suffer, they can deserve it, meaning it can be fair to them.

    Something that’s impossible if their future is the one possible future they can get to from their distant past because they are 100% unlucky to have that past.

    That’s what Strawson’s argument is against.

    It may well be that you don’t disagree with him or me at all, I’m not sure.

  61. Stephen Lawrence

    http://www.pulse.co.uk/news/videos/families-anger-at-handling-of-florida-killer/

    “Poignantly, he stated: “I hope that you and your family suffer every single second of every single day, just as the loved ones of James Kouzaris and James Cooper do…”

    This is expression of belief in ultimate responsibility Andreas.

    The person doesn’t think the killer and his family should suffer because others need to be deterred by their suffering.

    He thinks they should because it serves them right because of what they had done.

    Of course this is an extreme case and a very emotive situation but this underlying belief that people can deserve rewards and penalties in this strong sense is part of peoples psychology in all human interactions.

    It’s this “wicked witch” that Coyne and Harris, Galen Strawson, Tom Clark and others are arguing against.

  62. Re Dennis Sceviour March 28th

    “However, the absence of scientific data does not mean that Free Will is an evolutionary construct”
    Yes I agree here. However in view of all the circumstances I have so far considered (and there may well be some I have missed) I am of the opinion that it is so far the best explanation. Call it an hypothesis, or bold conjecture if you like.

  63. Stephen Lawrence

    Neil,

    “the case you describe is not the one I had in mind. In my case, the agent does not want to pat the cat because of her phobia, yet it is true that if she wanted to, she would. Hence the problem for the conditionalist analysis.”

    I don’t see this as a problem. Not only are we interested in what we could have done if we had wanted. We are also interested in what prevented us from wanting to. So I could have fed the cat if I’d wanted to, why didn’t I want to? I couldn’t be bothered, doesn’t count as the right sort of restriction. Whilst I could have stroked the cat if I’d wanted to, why didn’t I want to, I had a phobia , does count.

    Exactly what sorts of restrictions we count and don’t count and why, I’m not sure.

    But it seems to me that’s what is going on.

  64. I need to think more about the darned cat, Neil, but I’m still not sure I see the problem. But maybe I’m being obtuse here.

    It may be that “could means ‘would if I wanted to'” won’t quite work. My main point was simply that “could” does not mean the same as “would”. Even if Jerry is right about sufficiently rigid causal determinism, and we would get exactly the same answer if we replayed the tape, it doesn’t follow that the person could not act otherwise. All that follows is that he would not act otherwise if those circumstances were repeated. Whether or not s/he could act otherwise depends on what we normally mean by “could”, and in our ordinary language it’s not a disqalifier if the reason someone does not act otherwise is a lack of desire to do (when they have all the relevant capacities, opportunities, etc.). But we largely agree about this, I think.

    Thanks for the tip about Lewis. I’ll read up on what he had to say.

  65. Where I have a disagreement with Neil arises from with his orginal comment. Neil sez: “I don’t think it’s true that free will is used in many conflicting ways – no more than any other controversial term, and much less than many. The philosophical debate is remarkably well-behaved. As to folk usage, there are 4 studies to my knowledge. One looked at the use in novels, three were discourse analyses. All recent,one as yet unpublished. They all show that ordinary people mean fw to refer to choices that are not compelled, coerced, or pressured, where there is time for deliberation and when there is something at stake.”

    Actually, I can along with most of this. I don’t disagree with the bit about folk usage – though I suspect that further studies will find out that concerns about fatalism are playing a larger role than this suggests. I don’t even disagree that the philosophical literature may be well behaved. But I still think that there’s confusion, and comes out partly from the fact that the folk usage doesn’t line up very well with the issues that divide philosophers (or if does, I’d like to see an argument about how it does).

    And then there are usages that you find when you read theological and apologetical literature.

    For example, I’ve seen many theologians or apologists claim that the reason God does not make himself more apparent is so that we have free will whether or not to believe he exists. Here, “free will” is being equated with some kind of under-determination of the facts about God by the evidence available to us. If evidence about something is inconclusive, then we are, apparently, “free” to believe one way or the other, and this is apparently a great benefit, at least in the case of belief in God.

    Putting it another way, our will is not free insofar as the evidence in favour of a proposition (such as “God exists”) overwhelms our ability to disbelieve the proposition.

    That seems like a very different understanding of free will from any being discussed here, and it’s common enough in the literature not to be dismissed as merely idiosyncratic.

  66. Stephen Lawrence

    Russell,

    “My main point was simply that “could” does not mean the same as “would”. Even if Jerry is right about sufficiently rigid causal determinism, and we would get exactly the same answer if we replayed the tape, it doesn’t follow that the person could not act otherwise.”

    Yes but we need to be careful. Could can’t mean could given the initial conditions because that would introduce a weird contra causal freedom, the ability to do what we wouldn’t do.

    So we need to be clear that could means slightly different initial conditions would have resulted in different behaviour.

  67. Stephen Lawrence

    “Putting it another way, our will is not free insofar as the evidence in favour of a proposition (such as “God exists”) overwhelms our ability to disbelieve the proposition.

    That seems like a very different understanding of free will from any being discussed here, and it’s common enough in the literature not to be dismissed as merely idiosyncratic.”

    It’s odd you say that Russell, it is the same concept or at least very similar.

    The concept is (assuming determinism) that although you were prevented from doing otherwise in the actual situation you did have the ability to do otherwise.

    And now with beliefs:

    Although you were prevented from believing otherwise in the actual situation you did have the ability to believe otherwise.

  68. According to Bernard Lonergan, S.J., the human mind is structured like the scientific method. At the lowest level is observations, which requires paying attention. At the level of inquiry, humans ask questions about the cause of things they observe and the relationship between things. At the level of reflective judgment, humans marshal the evidence and decide whether or not a theory is true. This requires being rational. The fourth level is deciding what to do with our bodies, which requires being responsible.

    That human beings have free will is an observation, but humans want to know what it is and what the relationship between ourselves and our bodies is.

    This is the evidence that humans really have free will and that the bright idea free will is an illusion is false:
    1)It is clear that we have free will when we do something that takes a lot of will power, like sticking to a diet. It is so easy to break the diet that there is no doubt we are responsible for our actions.
    2)People who say free will is an illusion live their lives as if they had free will: They feel guilty, apologize, and promise not to do bad things in the future.
    3)Free will is a mystery. Hence, humans are embodied spirits and the human soul is spiritual. To sustain the belief that humans are collections of molecules, atheists come up with the bright idea that free will is an illusion.
    4)Suppose someone is collecting minerals and they build a chest of drawers to hold the collection. They label each of the drawers one of the colors of the rainbow. A red mineral goes in the red draw, a blue mineral in the blue drawer, etc. One day they find a white mineral. They say, “White minerals don’t exist.” Such are the people who think free will is an illusion.

  69. Brains are meat computers. That is the fundamental point that some seem to want to either dance around or deny altogether.

    To “want” something is just as much a physical state of the brain as possessing the ability to swim.

    That’s no mere assertion. That’s where all the evidence points. It’s simple logic, given these facts, to conclude that the desire to undertake an action is part and parcel of one’s capability to do so.

  70. Darwiniana » Blackford: Jerry Coyne on free will - pingback on April 1, 2012 at 11:40 am
  71. No one doubts that the brain is a meat computer. What is the mind? I think you mean the mind doesn’t exist, all that exists is the brain. No? In any case, what is your evidence that humans do not have free will?

  72. » Russell:
    Why would we think that the meaning of “I have free will” is “I could act otherwise in a very strong sense of ‘could’.” That would just be special pleading to ensure that we reach the conclusion that no one has free will.

    I think this is the crux of the matter: Jerry is using a definition that is nothing but a restatement of determinism and claims that this is what “we” mean when we say “could have done otherwise”. a) The definition seems to be tautological with respect to the premise of determinism, and b) I haven’t yet seen any evidence whatsoever that Jerry’s definition is indeed what even a plurality of people would agree on. Dennett, of course, explains at length why that definition should be irrelevant, and I have yet to see Jerry seriously address Dennett’s arguments.

    And his insistence that it’s ‘physics all the way down’ is pretty much irrelevant, in a bad-reductionism kind of way, as far as I can see. It’s as though he is saying that no higher-level phenomena can be real, only single particles (or something) are real. In the words of David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity, p.371), what Jerry does is

    to conceive of the human condition in a reductionist way that obliterates the high-level distinctions that are essential for understanding it … .

    To try to reduce behaviour (including any free will that we might have) to physics is as sensible as trying to explain evolution in terms of particle interactions. No understanding will be gained thereby.

  73. This agonizing over the difficulty of defining free will indicates a lack understanding of free will. We can comprehend free will because we have it, but we can’t define or explicate what it is. It is a mystery. This is a paradoxical definition because it means defining something by saying it can’t be defined. You have to put on your thinking cap to grasp this definition.

  74. You then point to an additional property and say we should hold people “morally responsible” for this property—their vanity. This happens because we have failed to elucidate all the causes and reasons why this individual happens to be vain in their particular way at this particular time—and whether they ultimately had any control over that property at that time.

        Lyndon

    I suppose this would be a case of striagonality: an inappropriate redefinition of the terms that determine the outcome. But if we follow this logic to its end, we get into complete unknowability. There is no way we can ever know all the terms that define human actions unless we know all possible configurations of what it means to be human. And even that isn’t enough because we have to take the properties of everything that is seemingly human into account as well. We have what might be called an impractical rational construct.

    A determinist will simply say, well the terms might not be knowable in practice but they are knowable in theory. And they will claim that stochastic processes are not really fundamentally random. We just don’t yet (and might never know) all the terms. Randomness represents all the epistemologically uncertain terms, everything we don’t yet know – like our vanity – that might unexpectedly lead to another outcome than anticipated.

    Think of it this way: what if Person A is an extraterrestrial who will dissolve in water? Well, then obviously there is no point in Person A trying to save the drowning child. What if Person A has rabies? What if Person A is an almost perfectly engineered electronic android that isn’t waterproof? What if Person A’s parents tried to drawn them when they were a child? What if Person A is on psilocybin and momentarily think they can’t swim when they actually can? This list goes on and on and on and on until it fills an infinite universe describing all possible combinations of causes and reasons why Person A could never have saved the drowning child.

    So what, right? But herein lays the determinists leap of faith: even if we personally can’t take all possible reasons and causes into account at any given moment, the reasons and causes could be known at some point. By whom and when? Well, by the hypothetical all knowing rational demon we conceptualized in our head for whom all time is a static construct. There is another word for such a demon: God. And yet it’s often the very persons who have tried to excise God from our equations that insist everything must have an (as of yet unknown) reason and cause.

    But fine, if someone insists on making this leap of faith – that we could in essence become God – then is my vanity property striagonal? And is Russell’s could/would distinction pointless? I still don’t think so. What we, as an efficient God, need to have is a good algorithm for solving who should be rewarded with eternal bliss and punished with eternal suffering. Hey, if someone is willing to make the leap of faith to determinism, why not believe in samsara and nirvana as well? Makes more idealistic and rational sense than the troubling nuisance of sudden birth and terminal death.

    We could distinguish between the following types of properties:

    -Enabling
    -Disabling

    To identify who might save a drowning child, it seems reasonable that we (God of the cosmos) should first look at the known properties that are required to save a drowning child (the enabling properties). I know where not constrained by time and can accomplish all this instantaneously without ever having done anything since we’re God. Hey, I’m trying my best here to approximate the impossible. Enabling properties would be something like:

    -Ability to swim in water
    -Ability to keep weight similar to a child afloat while swimming

    Once we have identified this set, we then separate those in this set whose properties ultimately disable (inhibit) them from saving the child. We divide these disabled into two sets:

    -Inability due to external constraints
    -Inability due to internal constraints

    Our group of people who are potentially acting immorally by not acting is to be found only in this very last group: those unable to act for internal reasons. Not all of them are necessarily acting immorally and should not necessarily be condemned to continue on the Wheel of Suffering. Phobias have been raised as potentially legitimate reasons for not acting (though I’m not sure how a Brahmin would feel about such an “excuse”). For example, in this case perhaps there is a white chalk line on the ground and Person A is convinced stepping over a white line will mean someone is about to inevitably die. Call it the White Line phobia.

    We can now distinguish between different sets:

    -Enabled AND externally constrained (Couldn’t)
    -Enabled AND NOT externally constrained (Could)
    -Enabled AND internally constrained (Wouldn’t)
    -Enabled AND NOT internally constrained (Would)

    It seems to me we now have a reasonable algorithm for beginning to make practical moral judgments. BTW, everyone lacking the initially enabling properties immediately fall into the first set (Couldn’t). I conjecture that the Couldn’t set is potentially infinite whereas the Could set is finite. The Would and Wouldn’t sets are finite sub-sets of the Could.

    [...] we need to be careful. Could can’t mean could given the initial conditions because that would introduce a weird contra causal freedom, the ability to do what we wouldn’t do.

        Stephen Lawrence

    True. Are disabling internal properties the dreaded contra-causals of determinism? I don’t think so. It’s not some “mysterious” force that determinists hate because it’s supposedly impossibly causa sui (i.e. by being it’s own cause). Seen deterministically, these properties are merely the final point of an unknowably long causal chain that terminates within what is distinctly and materially considered Person A and that causes Person A’s White Line phobia. It’s no different than the force applied by breaks to a train. We can even imagine Person A rushing towards the water, then seeing the white line and freezing to a stand still.

    Now, I personally don’t like this mechanistic analogy with the train at all. It seems terribly antiquated. Contemporary biology talks about excitatory and inhibitory impulses. In computer science we have NOT (inverter) gates as well as AND gates. Enabling and disabling properties are perfectly analogous here. Separating vanity and the ability to swim into separate categories makes perfect sense. Vanity may be an unknown cause not to act. But once known it’s not a legitimate cause.

  75. Stephen, we’d normally not think our freedom is violated merely because we are given the evidence for something that is, in fact, true. There might be exceptions, but that’s the rule. If anything, being given true information and the evidence for it this seems to enhance … well, if not our freedom at least something in the vicinity, such as our autonomy. It enhances our ability to achieve our goals, satisfy our desires, avoid the outcomes we fear, etc.

  76. Andreas, if we keep digging into the brain (history/genes) of any individual the could/would will (theoretically under determinism) break down [...]
        Lyndon

    Isn’t this the very definition of reductionism, Lyndon? Everything breaks down… :wink:

  77. Stephen Lawrence

    I agree Russell,

    My point was you were prevented from believing otherwise.

    But could have believed otherwise because had you not been prevented you would have done.

    It’s the same principle that compatibilist free will is based upon.

    You were prevented from doing otherwise.

    But could have done otherwise because had you not been prevented, you would have done.

  78. Re David Roemer April 1st
    My sympathies are with the deterministic viewpoint. How ever when I reflect upon my life as a whole it seems almost overwhelmingly that all the choices and decisions I have made so far, find their origin in me alone. When I reflect on the universe and all that it embraces including myself I cannot help but conclude I am part of a continuous system; continuous in that the principles of cause and effect which are a human construct, which impose breaks in what is a continuum, have no place. So far as the white mineral example is concerned I would not deny its existence but ask myself why it seems white to me when all else is otherwise coloured? That is the real problem.
    I am still not clear on what grounds some people claim they could have chosen or decided otherwise.

  79. Re: Don Bird April 3
    The human mind is structured like the scientific method. At the lowest level is observations, which requires paying attention. At the level of inquiry, humans ask questions and invent answers. This requires intelligence. At the level of reflective judgment, humans marshal the evidence and decide whether a possible answer to a question is true. This requires being rational. The next level is deciding what to do with our bodies. This requires being responsible.

    For example, we observe fossils and geological data and ask why. Very intelligent people invented the theory that evolution took 3 billion years. Rational people judge that the theory is true.

    I’v given the evidence that humans have free will and upon reflection have decided that humans do indeed have free will. If you don’t agree, it means one of us has bad judgment. If you don’t understand my evidence, it means one of us is more intelligent than the other.

  80. Re:- David Roemer April 3rd “I’v given the evidence that humans have free will and upon reflection have decided that humans do indeed have free will.”
    Maybe I am both blind and unintelligent, but at this moment I am unable to find where you have given a thoroughgoing explanation as to the existence of free will. As I stated before my inclination is towards Determinism and is no more than that. I will say that the work of Benjamin Libet and more recently Masao Matsuhashi and Mark Hallett published in 2008 do lend support to the fact that decisions to act are made at an unconscious level and accordingly carried out thereafter during which a state of consciousness develops. So far as vision goes the body can and often does act before the phenomenal state of visual consciousness develops. If you wish I can provide sources based on scientific work for what I say. In this connection a huge amount of brain processing is carried out at an unconscious level as are other bodily functions. I am taking it that Free will supervenes on states of consciousness.
    It seems to me that a considerable amount of empirical work has been carried out which to some extent supports the deterministic viewpoint. So far as I know such is not the case with Free Will other than the “The Free Will Theorem”which is the culmination of a series of theorems about quantum mechanics that began in the 1960s. This asserts, that if humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of it. This has been further developed by John Conway and Simon Kochen in 2004. It does seem to make the prior assumption that human beings do have Free Will which to my mind, is not really helpful in proving a case for Free Will. I have yet to discover any way of testing the main tenet of Free Will that ‘one could have chosen otherwise’.
    You appear to be certain that Free Will does in fact exist and possibly you are correct. I am one of those weird people who feel certain of nothing, which is why I can only for instance stand on the threshold of Atheism. Much the same for me with Determinism and Evolution they are best explanations so far. Were I a betting man that’s where my money would go. Most importantly I do not believe a state of certainty is a good scientific viewpoint, as all science is tentative and likely to revision in the light of further knowledge.
    You say one of us may turn out to have bad judgement if I do not agree. However both of us could turn out to have bad judgement if Compatibilism proves to be the case. Similarly you say “If you don’t understand my evidence, it means one of us is more intelligent than the other.” I do not think that follows. A difference of opinion between people does not necessary reflect on intelligence. We could both be wrong about something, that does not make us both equally unintelligent.

  81. Re:Don Bird
    Intelligence usually means how fast or how slow it takes a person to grasp an insight. With religion, however, because of anxiety and inhibition, people can’t even grasp insights. If you don’t understand these bits of evidence, you are failing at the level of intelligence:
    1) It’s clear we have free will when we do something that takes a lot of will power.
    2) People who say free will is an illusion live their lives as if they have free will.
    3) People who say free will is an illusion have an incentive for believing it is an illusion: Free will is a mystery, which means humans are embodied spirits. This means humans are finite beings and an infinite being exists. In the west, the infinite being is called God. If God exists, we may windup in hell after we die.

    If you understand these reasons, but are not persuaded that humans are embodied spirits, then you have bad judgment. Just like creationists have bad judgment for thinking Earth is 10,000 years old.

  82. @David-“1) It’s clear we have free will when we do something that takes a lot of will power.”

    This has not been clear, and remains unclear, to a lot of very bright people. And it seems to be begging the question in the first place.

    “2) People who say free will is an illusion live their lives as if they have free will.”

    There are scores of illusions that humans are susceptible to. This is not sufficient reason to believe that the illusion accurately reflects reality outside of our experience. Many optical illusions are fine examples of this. So would be something like the Monty Hall problem.

    Not being persuaded by your 3 points there is a far cry from proof of bad judgement. Indeed, I would claim that it would reflect just fine judgement for one to entertain the notion that you’re not 100% correct.

  83. @ Michael F: Evidence 1), 2), and 3) is my basis for deciding we have free will. Your comments show that you understand all of the bits of evidence. Hence, you are not failing at the level of intelligence.

    Like people who think the Earth is 10,000 years old, you have bad judgment. The people who agree with you are children of the Enlightenment. These are the people that caused all the wars and genocide of the 19th and 20th century.

  84. @David – Well, I’m glad to not be failing at the level of intelligence…at least, in your view. This judgement thing is getting me, though. I tried to address at least 2 of your 3 points that you provided as “evidence.” By addressing them, I tried to point out how they fail as evidence for anything. Instead of any type of rebuttal, you claim that my comments show that I understand your bits of evidence. Then, without any type of discussion leading to what comes next, you just belittle my judgment (again, without presenting any case) and claim that it is analogous to belief in creationism and that judgement like mine “caused all the wars and genocide of the 19th and 20th century.” I’m trying to be generous and not assume that you’re really putting that kind of weight on my and my “judgement,” but just talking off the cuff.

  85. @Michael- I’v you given all of the evidence I have. You haven’t said anything that brings to mind another bit of evidence. Once all of the evidence is being considered, there is nothing more to discuss. All that is left is to reflect on the evidence and decide whether the theory humans have free will is true. We have made different decisions. How can I maintain my decision without thinking that you have bad judgment? One of us has to have bad judgment. If I thought it was me, I would change my decision about free will.

  86. @David-These responses to my probes into your justifications for the claim that your 3 points are actually evidence for your conclusion seem to be met with avoidance and no actual conversation about your claims. You just admonish people to reflect on your claims and if they’re intelligent enough and their judgment is righteous, they’ll agree with you. And then you seem to feel the need to let others know that if they disagree, it’s because they have bad judgment.

    At the very least, it seems like a decent running assumption that if someone is presenting an opposing viewpoint to one’s own, that their judgments differ or else they would agree. Telling me that you find my judgement to be bad is just redundant, and then telling me it’s analogous to the belief that the earth is 10,000 years old serves not purpose but to be insulting.

    The 3 points you presented are just assertions, and don’t serve as evidence, in and of themselves, for anything. But you seem to think there is something interesting going on with those 3 points. If you really don’t want to have a conversation about those 3 points, other than just pointing out how silly you think disagreement with them is, then why did you post them here?

  87. On consideration of what you have said and a brief look at your web site it is apparent to me that any interaction between us concerning this matter is most unlikely to be fruitful. My arguments find their origin in philosophical conjecture which is in the main firmly supported by what science reveals. As I have already stated all science is tentative likely to be revised in the light of new knowledge. Out of this one can accordingly believe truly or falsely and one can accept such a state of affairs. I think I may be correct in saying that whatever you hold to be true is based on Faith which does not admit of falsity. I have no issues with this viewpoint, it is not one which I hold, but for me it does not provide the best explanations concerning the state of affairs, where we as humans, find ourselves.

  88. @Don Bird and Michael F
    I don’t see any point in continuing the conversation either because I don’t see any thing that you don’t understand. There is nothing more I can tell you. Do you think Young Earth Creationists don’t understand geology? Do you think if you told them more about fossils and geology they would decide the earth was billions of years old?

    To keep the record straight I will repeat my reasons:

    1)We know we have free will because we know it. This might be circular reasoning, but who says circular reasoning can’t be used as evidence?
    2)Everyone feels guilty, apologizes, and promises not to do bad things again.
    3)Free will is a mystery because there is no answer to the question of what the relationship is between myself and my body. Hence, humans are embodied spirits and finite beings. Hence, an infinite being exists (God). People deceive themselves about free will because they don’t want to admit God exists.

    I can’t take back my statement that you have bad judgment. I use your ideas about free will to prove God has communicated Himself to mankind. I like to say, “People who don’t believe in the Bible are the kind of people who think free will is an illusion.”

  89. Re:-David Roemer April 5
    You Write:-
    “I can’t take back my statement that you have bad judgment. I use your ideas about free will to prove God has communicated Himself to mankind. I like to say, “People who don’t believe in the Bible are the kind of people who think free will is an illusion.”

    So far as God and the Bible are concerned I believe they are no more than a human construct and any belief to the contrary is delusional. That said however I have had many interesting conversations with believers which have been informative and thought provoking with respect on both sides, concerning opposing viewpoints. It seems a pity that myself and others in this blog are unable to reach you on similar terms.

  90. Listen to yourself. You get offended when I compare you to a Young Earth Creationist and say you have bad judgment because of your ideas about free will. Now, you say that I am delusional, which is worse than being irrational or having bad judgment. The only thing we should discuss is which of us is delusional about free will.

  91. David, I think you need to cool down your rhetoric a bit. We can all get a little excited and overbearing when discussing things we believe to have a firm grasp on. But some of your comments border on ad hominems. What you have said about intelligence indicates a flawed understanding of epistemics. Creating absolute measurements of intelligence is a notoriously difficult task despite the bravado of standardized IQ tests post Binet-Simon. The only reason I can see that the discussion of intellectual aptitude started here is that it was introduced by yourself as an unwarranted rhetorical device. And you should know full well that comparing someone who thinks of themselves as scientifically sound to a Creationist will elicit a strong emotional response. If you think what Don says is unsound, then demonstrate it with rigorous arguments rather than hyperbole.

  92. Andreas, my use of the words unintelligent and irrational to describe people who disagree with me is an effort to communicate effectively. The human mind is structured like the scientific method: 1) observations require paying attention, 2) inquiry requires being intelligent, 3) reflective judgment requires being rational, and 4) free will requires being responsible.

    Usually, intelligence is a measure of how fast or slow it takes a person to understand a theory invented by extremely intelligent persons in the past. In the case of religion, there is so much anxiety that people are inhibited from thinking intelligently and have blind spots.

    For example, many people, who consider themselves rational and intelligent, can’t even grasp the theory that humans are embodied spirits. The only theories they grasp are materialism and dualism. It is an intelligence failure. Young earth creationists have no trouble understanding the theory that the earth is billions of years old and understanding the evidence. They fail at the level of reflective judgment.

    That humans have free will is a matter of observation, not inquiry. Humans want to understand free will and ask questions. One possible solution to the questions asked is that free will is an illusion. There is no evidence for this solution. People who think it is true have bad judgment.

    I have already said all I can think to say about free will. There is nothing left to say except that I have good judgment and you have bad judgment. I have already given 3 bits of evidence that humans have free will. I have no answers to the objections to those bits of evidence.

  93. David-None of your 3 points come close to being sufficient evidence for anything. All you’ve done is make assertions, and then claim that your assertions are evidence, and then claim that anyone who disagrees is expressing bad judgment or a lack of intelligence.

    Russell has provided us with thoughtful commentary on 6 other highly intelligent peoples’ thoughtful commentary on the topic of free will. You lay down the idea that “People experience free will, therefore we have free will.” There are so many reasons to think that this assertion is suspect that your blind allegiance to it is telling. “For example, many people, who consider themselves rational and intelligent, can’t even grasp the theory that humans are embodied spirits.” The fact that so many people could so easily find ways to pick at that statement, that a critical thinker might start to wonder if he’s indeed the most intelligent person on a blog site, or maybe needs to rethink some deeply held convictions. As it stands, it doesn’t look like you’ve made any arguments, or attempts at conversation, at all. Just wild assertions based on faith. And, again, it should be noted, that assertions don’t count as evidence just because they come from someone who claims to have better judgment than everyone who disagrees with them.

    But, at least it’s been entertaining. And thanks for prompt responses.

  94. @Michael F
    I don’t think any of the 7 “highly intelligent” people engaging “thoughtful commentary” can pass the following intelligence test: Why is the author of the following quote from a major biology textbook stupid about the mind-body problem?

    “And certain properties of the human brain distinguish our species from all other animals. The human brain is, after all, the only known collection of matter that tries to understand itself. To most biologists, the brain and the mind are one and the same; understand how the brain is organized and how it works, and we’ll understand such mindful functions as abstract thought and feelings. Some philosophers are less comfortable with this mechanistic view of mind, finding Descartes’ concept of a mind-body duality more attractive.” (Niel Campbell, Biology, 4th edition, p. 776 )

  95. David, why are you quoting introductory biology textbooks? Most introductory textbooks could be endlessly picked apart because there’s usually not one thing that is wrong with them. And what is “wrong” according to one constituency is “right” according to another. If we were omniscient, we would instantaneously know who was right and wrong. But we are not, are we. We are forced to engage in long arguments back and forth about what is to be considered true or false. This is the epistemic fallacy I pointed out. If God whispered into your ear – and your ear alone – then we would not need to arduously discuss anything. We would simply have to listen to the gospel of David Roemer.

    And why are you giving “intelligence” tests to people who you know are very unlikely to respond? These are the type of rhetorical devices that some accused ancient sophists of using to gain power rather than seek truth. Rather than tell us what you think is wrong with the text, you challenge us to figure it out, as if it was obvious. And if we can’t figure it out, then we must be stupid, right? Unlike David who knows precisely where the problem with the text lays.

    It seems to me that you are attaching some facile views to people active at Talking Philosophy that are unwarranted. Most of those involved here seem like serious seekers of truth. This forum is not intended for demonstrating one’s intelligence. It is intended for discussions that help us all make sense of this wonderfully mysterious place we call our Universe. It presents many view points, not some monolithic battle of materialism versus dualism that you seem to imagine. I think you are chasing windmills here.

  96. Andreas, you failed the test. I’m going to let you take it again. Why is the author of this statement stupid?

    “In its scientific or philosophical sense, it [materialism] refers to a theory that aspires to explain all the phenomena without recourse to anything immaterial—like a Cartesian soul, or“ectoplasm”—or God. The standard negation of materialistic in the scientific sense is dualistic, which maintains that there are two entirely different kinds of substance, matter and…whatever minds are supposedly made of.” (Daniel Dennet, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena, p. 302)

  97. David – Please cool it with the rhetoric. That sort of thing is not okay here.

  98. The reason Campbell and Dennet have blind spots is that they don’t now the solution to the mind-body problem judged to be true by Catholic philosophers and theologians: it is a mystery. There is no solution. Campbell and Dennet must have come across this in their readings, but they couldn’t understand it. All they can understand is materialism and dualism.

    Dualism is the theory that spiritual substances exist. There is no evidence for this. There is more evidence for materialism because atoms and molecules do indeed exist. There is even more evidence for idealism, which is that only the mind exists. The material world, according to idealists is an illusion created by God.

  99. You reject dualism, David. So let me try to phrase what you are saying in my own way to see if I understand:

    1) God (Logos) exists necessarily.
    2) God is infinite (i.e. everything, including the “material”).
    3) Humans are finite, contingent clusters of the divine and eternal.
    4) God does and has done everything.
    5) Humans are finite aspects of God and can hence only do a finite number of things.

    I would contest (1) in my own way which puts in jeopardy my willingness to accept the other points. But let’s not focus on that for now because we would get hopelessly embroiled in the Ontological Argument. Let’s just assume God does indeed exist necessarily. If I understood you correctly, there are a few conclusions you seem to make I don’t follow.

    A) Why does any of this imply a heaven or hell? Because God is infinite, and therefore anything must necessarily exist? Including, say, purple giant ducks orbiting Earth 2 where all water tastes like soda pop.

    B) If you use reason to make conclusions about God’s existence, why is it not valid to use reason to draw occlusion about the nature of free will? With other words, why is free will necessarily a mystery?

  100. David Roemer April 6, 2012 at 9:22 am

    I agree there is a mystery and as yet there is no satisfactory explanation, We may even be barking up the wrong tree. The mystery I refer to is called the Hard Problem of Consciousness coined some years ago by David Chalmers. T H Huxley in 1866 described it perfectly “How is it that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as incomprehensible as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.”
    The point I am trying to make here is that for free will to be exercised we apparently need to be in a state of consciousness, whatever that is. However sound judgements can be made whilst in unconscious states. For example sleep walking, certain types of epileptic seizure where a person can find their way from a building and even converse whilst unconscious. You have probably driven your car deep in thought with no immediate conscious perception of your whereabouts; A child runs out in front of you and your foot is on the brake before you know it. For Free will to function as we think we know it one has the weigh the alternatives and make a selection. This surely demands a conscious state but as I have tried to show sound judgements can emanate from an unconscious state.
    You say “it is a mystery. There is no solution.” Yes you could be right here we may just have hold of the wrong end of the stick. It may all go the way of Vitalism the Élan Vitale which was extinguished by the progress of science.
    I note you have indicated certain Biology text books as being erroneous in what they say and I have no problem with that; however may I suggest a book for you to peruse it is one of the best I know on the subject of conscious Will By Daniel M Wegner presently Professor at Harvard University. You may of course be aware of it “The Illusion of Conscious Will” Pretty good to crack your wits against if you are a Free Willer.
    Yesterday I was writing on the Net to someone and I additionally was wondering should I finish and then go to the gym or should I now go to the gym, and finish later I had to make a decision. I got into a short conversation with my wife and forgot the dilemma. I continued writing and did not finish but found myself in due course preparing to go to the gym which I did. I have no idea what made me choose that option there was no conscious moment of decision I was on my way. I considered it carefully whilst driving and concluded I did not decide it just happened. You may argue I could have chosen otherwise but I just cannot accept that, how could I ever know? You may say I chose subconsciously, but that would not be free will.

  101. When you say there is no explanation for the human mind yet, then you are saying that the human mind is not a mystery but the subject of yet-to-be-solved questions. Only humans ask questions. When animals have nothing to do they go to sleep. Just because a human asks a question (What is free will? What is consciousness? What is truth? What is causality?) doesn’t mean there has to be an answer. With questions about things we observe with our senses, there is a tremendous track record of success. There is no record of success with questions about the human mind.

    This is why humans are indefinabilities that become conscious of their own existence, in other words, humans are embodied spirits. Since other humans exist, humans are finite beings. Finite beings need a cause. If all beings in the universe needed a cause, the universe would not be intelligible. Hence a being exists which is not finite. The “not finite” being is called God in western religions.

  102. Stephen Lawrnce

    Russell,

    “On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.

    What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? ”

    I think this is so important that I am prepared to boringly labour the point, sorry.

    The answer to your question is beside a different want, you would have needed different causal antecedents that would have produced the different want.

    You are giving the strong impression that you have made the very mistake which is belief in contra-causal free will.

    Stephen

  103. My World View – Free Will « myatheistlife - pingback on May 6, 2012 at 1:22 am
  104. Stephen Lawrence

    All that follows assumes determinism.

    Quoting Russell,

    “Leave everything else in place, but change my desire-set, and I would have acted otherwise.”

    This is impossible.

    “In those circumstances, it is true that I could have acted otherwise.”

    No, because those are impossible circumstances.

    ” In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.””

    No, not in “those circumstances” because that’s impossible.

    One has to get this right before having any worthwhile discussions on free will with the likes of Jerry Coyne or writing anything worth while on the views of the likes of Sam Harris.

  105. But Stephen, don’t you think it behooves us to distinguish between internal and external causes? If [v,w,p] stands for the required desire-set, [x,y,z] represents necessary physical abilities and [a,b,c] necessary external conditions, then it follows that to save the child you need {[v,w,p],[x,y,z],[a,b,c]}. Any other state will not do. Take the following set:

    {[w,p],[x,y,z],[a,b,c]}

    Seemingly similar but missing the v. Let’s say we jumble all the sub-states into one big bag as follows:

    {a,p,b,y,z,w,z,c}

    What good does that do us? Essentially you are just insisting that everything should be reduced to their smallest possible states. Note that w may actually be some super-sub-state 0,1,0,1,1,0,1,1,0,0. Properly expressed then the state to save the child may be:

    0,1,0,1,1,0,1,1,0,0…
    [the next part is absurdly and enormously long]
    …0,1,1,0,1

    What you end up with are extremely abstract vectors in a vector field. What good does that do you? Desire-sets are obviously different to manipulate than ability-sets.

    What is easier? To get someone to drink a coke who doesn’t like it or to get someone who has never taking a gymnastic lesson to win in the Olympics?

  106. Stephen Lawrence

    “But Stephen, don’t you think it behooves us to distinguish between internal and external causes?”

    Yeah sure Andreas.

    My point I’m taking up with Russell has nothing to do with that.

    It’s about accepting that in order to have done otherwise we would have needed to have had a different distant past (assuming determinism) and implications that follow.

    One being that people don’t believe or accept that we would have needed a different past. Which is why it’s true to say people believe in Libertarian free will in general.

    It’s this alone I’m talking about, no need to think I disagree on anything else you are saying.

  107. Stephen Lawrence

    This is from the Paul Bloom thread.

    Me:

    “the reason determinism is a problem for moral responsibility is that in order to end up making the right choice you need to go through the right deliberation process.

    In order to go through the right deliberation process, you need the world in 1653, say, to have been in the right state so that it was your only possible future you could get to from that past.

    Of course whether it was in that state or not is luck.

    There is enormous tension between saying some one deserves to suffer for what thay have done. And they were the unlucky one to have the bad past, any one of us might have done but as it happens it was them and so they deserve to suffer.”

    So this is the problem.

    The following is part of the reply from Russell.

    “I do understand everything you say in your comment. It’s that, IMO, the “problem” itself is an illusion.

    Even if causal determinism at the level of the brain is true, that simply does not entail that we select the only option that we could in the circumstances.”

    But, of course, it is true (assuming determinism).

    And by saying the problem is an illusion when in fact it isn’t, is to deny the problem and in effect affirm Libertarian free will.

    Whilst also denying belief in it or even that people in general do.

  108. Your point isn’t very relevant. How does it help us in any way? Because it proves people are powerless? They aren’t. They are loaded with capacities. And people have a duty to use their capacities for the benefit of society.

    You keep seeing the past as something where the realization CHILD MIGHT DROWN and the actualization CHILD DROWNED immediately following each other. Ultimately this becomes so absurd that everything follows everything in complete immediacy. The Universe is reduced to an unchangeable static construct.

    The main point is that Person A and Person B can change their minds right there in the period of time between they notice the child may drown and the child actually drowning. There is opportunity.

    But if Person B does not know how to swim, then only Person A can ever save the child. It doesn’t matter how much Person B goes goes back and forth between wanting to save the child and not in that period. Person B could NOT have done it! There is no opportunity. Excusable.

    The desire-set of Person A, on the other hand, can flip a certain number of times until it’s too late. In theory of drama this also knows as the “point of no return”. Person A could have. They didn’t. But they could’ve. NOT excusable.

    Whether they could have and would have are two different stories.

  109. Perhaps everyone has a duty to learn to swim. This is a different story again. We know it takes a certain period of time to learn to swim. If society requires you to be able to swim, then we have to ask another question: Did Person B have the opportunity to learn to swim prior to realizing the child might drown?

    Yes, childhood education is important. But at some point, Person B will have to take responsibility themselves and seek out the opportunities.

    If Person B is 5 years old, it would be unreasonable to expect them to be able to swim for sure and let alone be able to save a drowning person. But if they are 21, the story becomes different. Swimming can be learned by most with rather few resources. If Person B has no arms and legs, the story changes again.

    No one reasonable is going to argue about the core importance of giving people as equal opportunity as possible. What we will argue about is how much responsibility you have to try to create your own opportunities as your life progresses.

    You seem to be saying that no one has the opportunity to do anything but what they did, so we should excuse everyone for everything. That denies that it’s reasonable to assume that even if we are not born a clean slate, almost all people are born with a core set of abilities. Put simply, we are all born humans and not lemurs.

  110. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “Your point isn’t very relevant.”

    It’s very relevent if people believe in deserved consequences incompatible with determinism.

    What harm might that be doing?

    This is what the fuss is all about. There are a minority of Libertarians who say there is no problem we have Libertarian free will. And compatibilists who say there is no problem because we have compatibilist free will and that’s nearly the same.

    And those like Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris and me and Tom Clarke and Bruce Waller, who say no, belief in libertarian free will is harmful, we don’t have libertarian free will and there are consequences.

  111. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “You seem to be saying that no one has the opportunity to do anything but what they did, so we should excuse everyone for everything.”

    But I don’t say that.

    I say our concept of opportunities must be compatible with having one future we can get to from our actual past.

    I say the reason not to allow an excuse must be compatible with having one future we can get to from our actual past.

    No more, no less.

  112. But the future is very open! :idea: And unpredictable.

    A problem with someone so unimaginative as Sam Harris is that he doesn’t understand this. He sees constraints everywhere that we can know rather than opportunities we haven’t yet recognized. For an explanation of why I say Sam Harris is unimaginative, see Sam Harris (a.k.a. Dr. Kall), A World Without Lies.

    It’s a real big problem in his works.

  113. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “But the future is very open! And unpredictable.”

    Yep. As a determinist I’m acutely aware of this because I recognise the importance of keeping my epistemic options open.

    What makes you think Sam Harris disagrees?

  114. Because he thinks he’s on the cusp of knowing human futures with his (f)MRI, DNA analysis and what have you…

    [...] one future we can get to from our actual past.

    Stephen Lawrence

    This is indeed important. Now tell me what that future is. Even for one single Person A standing at the shore of a lake watching a child drown.

    The future is undetermined! We are the determinants of the future, somewhat mysterious even to ourselves but far more mysterious to others. This is what Sam Harris denies:

    By merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone of voice, others are often more aware of your state of mind and motivations than you are.”

    Sam Harris (Free Will, page 7)

  115. Stephen Lawrence

    “Because he thinks he’s on the cusp of knowing human futures with his (f)MRI, DNA analysis and what have you…”

    I dunno Andreas does he really?

    I’d need to know just what was meant by that and in any case it’s not relevent to the current debate on free will.

    “This is indeed important. Now tell me what that future is. Even for one single Person A standing at the shore of a lake watching a child drown.”

    No idea, all I’m saying is their ability to save or not save is compatible with having one future they can get to from their actual past .

    “By merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone of voice, others are often more aware of your state of mind and motivations than you are.”

    Well, if the person in question is being open we can tell a lot from glancing at the face and tone of voice.

    I dunno about more than we do, we have the added conscious experience of what it feels like.

    I can’t see a problem as far as knowledge of the future is concerned.

  116. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “Whether they could have and would have are two different stories.”

    I think that the way we think about could is usually linked to would. I’d be interested if you had any relevent counter examples.

    Could might mean there are possible circumstances in which I would make a cup of tea.

    So I could make a cup of tea.

    If there are no possible circumstances in which I would make a cup of tea, then we would conclude that I couldn’t make a cup of tea, usually.

    Also could might mean nothing to prevent if, which means would if, because the if is sufficient cause.

    So in Russell’s example could means if understood correctly:

    1) There were possible circumstances (similar to the actual circumstances) in which a different want would have arisen.

    2) If the want had arisen the boy would have been saved as the want would have been sufficient to cause the action, i.e nothing to prevent if…

  117. A:”I could make you a cup of tea but I really don’t feel like it”.
    B:”Would you please make me a cup of tea? I really need one!”
    A:”Oh, sorry. I can’t after all because I forgot to buy tea. Silly me! I couldn’t even if I really wanted to.”

  118. Had A bought tea and yet still refused to make some we would understand why B might feel a bit miffed. But as it is, there is no tea to be had! And if B goes on an indignant tirade about how A shouldn’t have forgotten to buy tea, we’d think of B as quite rude.

  119. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    A:”I could make you a cup of tea but I really don’t feel like it”.

    Which means there are possible circumstances similar to these in which I would choose to.

    And if I chose to there would be nothing to prevent me from making a cup of tea, so I would.

    A:”Oh, sorry. I can’t after all because I forgot to buy tea. Silly me! I couldn’t even if I really wanted to.”

    Which means there are no possible circumstances in which I can make tea without tea.

    So if I really wanted to I still would not make the tea.

    Would and could stay linked as of course they are bound to. We never think we could do what we wouldn’t do. :???:

  120. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “Had A bought tea and yet still refused to make some we would understand why B might feel a bit miffed. But as it is, there is no tea to be had! And if B goes on an indignant tirade about how A shouldn’t have forgotten to buy tea, we’d think of B as quite rude.”

    All compatible with determinism.

  121. The main point here is that would is associated with wants, which is associated with internal causes which we think of as the determining self. And could is associated with external causes which we do NOT think of as the determining self. Does this distinction make any sense? If not then how does it even make sense to speak of a self? The self is an illusion?? Please! I mean come on. So the self is saying “Nope. I deny I ever even asked myself that question”? :shock:

  122. Stephen Lawrence

    “Does this distinction make any sense?”

    Of course.

    But that was not Russell’s would/could argument.

    He was arguing that we could want to all else being the same minus the alternative want.

  123. Stephen Lawrence

    The point is to have a different want you would need a different past.

  124. All else than your want. Which is what self-determines. I still get the impression you think there is no self-determination. The want is the self-determination! The will to power. That which within the period of realization the child might drown and the actual drowning can alter. It is the want that helps set the future based on the current opportunities. Yes, once set we cannot change it. But there is a moment so close it’s hard to tease them apart when suddenly the want mysteriously shifts from state w to state v.

  125. Stephen Lawrence

    “I still get the impression you think there is no self-determination. The want is the self-determination!”

    But why? I don’t give that impression, I just stick to the point.

    The want determines the action. The want could not be different all else being the same.

    So we could not do otherwise in the circumstances provided the circumstances refers to the actual circumstances minus the want.

  126. OK, so lets say that everything else stays the same (including any cosmic radiation)…except the parts of the brain that control want. This condition holds up to just befor the point-of-no-return when Person A has to dive into the lake to save the child. Could things have been different now, resulting in a living child rather than a dead child?

  127. Stephen Lawrence

    ” Could things have been different now, resulting in a living child rather than a dead child?”

    Not with the same past, so no, assuming I understand you correctly.

    That’s determinism.

  128. Stephen Lawrence

    But things could be different now because if the past had been slightly and appropriately different the man would have wanted to save the child and if he had wanted to he would have done so.

  129. Honestly, I’m trying to wrap my head around this. I’m trying to make sense of something where I think the very basic premise – determinism – is unsound. The idea of everything but some X being different in the same person does indeed not seem to be reasonable in a deterministic world. 

    Unless you speak in terms of similar, but not entirely the same person, the thought experiment makes no sense. And here it does make sense to me to hold Person A who had the wrong wants to account, and reward Person C who had the right ones. Person B, who didn’t have the right abilities, gets a pass.

    I just don’t think you can speak of luck in a deterministic world. Fate perhaps, but not luck.

  130. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “Unless you speak in terms of similar, but not entirely the same person, the thought experiment makes no sense.”

    Which is how we usually use the word the same. We don’t usually mean precisely the same by the same. Two women go to a party wearing the same dress for instance.

    The mistake is to think we are when we talk about the same circumstances.

    “I just don’t think you can speak of luck in a deterministic world.”

    I’ve said precisely what I mean by luck.

    If your past had been appropriately different you’d be going to commit murder tomorrow.

    Lucky you it wasn’t.

    Equally there are people who will commit murder tomorrow and if their pasts had been appropriately different, they would not be going to.

    They are unlucky that their pasts were not different.

    Wouldn’t you agree?

  131. What we are judging is how fitting the want-set of Person A and Person B are to their ability-set and the external conditions in a given situation. Russell has to speak for himself but this is what I think the point was of his Could/Would Argument.

  132. Stephen Lawrence

    “Honestly, I’m trying to wrap my head around this. I’m trying to make sense of something where I think the very basic premise – determinism – is unsound. The idea of everything but some X being different in the same person does indeed not seem to be reasonable in a deterministic world. ”

    I think it’s worth thinking how chess computers could make other possible moves.

    1) They could if they evaluated them most highly.

    2) They could have evaluated them most highly if the circumstances had been appropriately different

  133. This is Dennett’s approach. The problem is that logical computer programs seem like a really bad analogy for how we work.

    My daily challenge is to make these stupid things think and behave more like humans… :twisted:

    The way forward seems to me right now to introduce unpredictability through pseudo-randomness. This is one of the strongest reasons that give me pause about assuming we are deterministic computational devices. Statistical computational devices perhap, but definitely not like chess programs.

  134. Stephen Lawrence

    “What we are judging is how fitting the want-set of Person A and Person B are to their ability-set and the external conditions in a given situation.”

    Yes.


    Russell has to speak for himself but this is what I think the point was of his Could/Would Argument.”

    Well, he’s insisted that the different want was possible with the same past.

    I’ve said several times why that isn’t true and he’s hasn’t agreed but stuck to his take on it which is simply incorrect.

  135. Stephen Lawrence

    “This is Dennett’s approach. The problem is that logical computer programs seem like a really bad analogy for how we work.

    My daily challenge is to make these stupid things think and behave more like humans…

    The way forward seems to me right now to introduce unpredictability through pseudo-randomness. This is one of the strongest reasons that give me pause about assuming we are deterministic computational devices. Statistical computational devices perhap, but definitely not like chess programs.”

    But this misses the point.

    The computer can pick any option it evaluates most highly. So it can do otherwise.

    It’s capability of picking certain moves depends upon how good a computer it is. It can pick any move it is capable of and so again it can do otherwise.

    And this is the point, the meanings of CHDO that we should really be interested in when dealing with morality are compatible with determinism.

    We have no use for indeterminism, when judging person A B and C.

    A simple deterministic model is all we need.

  136. Tentatively…

    Saying morality is like a simple chess game seems to reduce morality to judging the rationality of a human being, their capability of rationally choosing the right move. Any examination that shows irrationalty creates moral excemption. Most crime have an irrational component, ergo most crimimals are morally exempt.

  137. Morality has to take into account how the world is and how humans actually behave. If humans do not behave like computers, it does not seem reasonable to base moral theory of computer analogies.

  138. What matters is whether people can make good decisions. Making good decisions is not an entirely rational affair. If it was, then computers would indeed be intelligent and already morally capable. They are NOT! Good decisions is about being sensible. What that means I’m not entirely sure. If I knew how to do that on a non-biological sustrate, you would already be on the way to obsolescense.

  139. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “Morality has to take into account how the world is and how humans actually behave. If humans do not behave like computers, it does not seem reasonable to base moral theory of computer analogies.”

    No.

    What we are interested in is the real meaning of could have done otherwise, why we are really interested.

    And you’ve said why, it’s to do with what we mean by ability, have the power to, capable of, could.

    And it’s to do with what we call choice which is evaluating options and act on the bases of the evaluation.

    No need for unnecessary complicaion at all.

    Real randomness, if there is any such thing can’t possibly make us deserving of blame, reward, shame, punishment and so on. And we can’t be deserving without it.

    Responisbility must be compatible with determinism or else it is a lie.

    It’s a nasty lie to deny that what we do is the luck of the draw which ever way you look at it.

    And that’s what incompatibilist free will is all about.

    Compatible free will is pretty much the same just a slightly different lie. The lie that moral responsibility stays about the same if we have compatible free will.

    You might have been going to commit murder today and if you had an appropriately different past you would be going to.

    You are lucky you didn’t.

    Or you might have been going to commit murder today and if some random factors were appropriately different you would be.

    Again you are lucky they were/are not.

    It’s the stubborn denial of this luck by just about everybody which is the problem.

    Luck either way determined or indetermined.

  140. Stephen Lawrence

    “What matters is whether people can make good decisions”

    OK, and what matters is what can means in your sentence.

    So, I can kick a football. But I’m not going to kick one today.

    How do we interpret this? We have two options.

    1) I mean Indeterminism is true and things could unfold differently than they are going to from these circumstances, so I could be going to kick a football with this present. :smile: :???:

    or

    2) I have legs I have feet etc and in certain possible circumstances I would kick a football with them?

    Of course we mean 2).

    Can is compatible with determinism.

  141. Stephen Lawrence

    “What matters is whether people can make good decisions.”

    What we know is they can make good decisions and the most terrible decisions.

    So what would you rather? Your decisions to depend upon the reasons that you have the desire set you do as well as the desire set?

    Or just the desire set, there due to indeterminism? You could have had any number of desire sets with the same past and as it happens you have this one.

    You’ve got a much better chance of making a good decision if determinism is true, or very nearly true.

    We’d better hope so. :-)

    And when you bring indeterminism to your computers or rather psuedo randomness, you place it very carefully somewhere, or else the thing would be utterly useless.

    But if there is indeterminism in nature, why would it only appear in just the right places?

    And we have another perfectly good answer to why it’s a struggle to get computers to behave like us. Because we are much more complex.

  142. Stephen, I’ve responded to some of you last comments here: Stupid Enough to be Responsible?

  143. I personally believe free will is a subjective term; that is to say, I have free will because I have no knowledge of my own future actions until I decide upon them, but if at the same time someone knew exactly what I’m going to do in the future (God, for example), then to them I would not have free will.
    The phrase “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind.

  144. @Jules
    The contradiction between free will and God’s knowledge of our actions doesn’t arise because God knows the future. God is an infinite being and does not change. There is no past and future for God.

    The contradiction arises from the question of how God knows what we decide. If God know what we do because He acts upon us, then in what sense are we free? If we act upon God, then God is contingent upon our actions and is not self-sufficient.

    The answer I was given in 1963 by Norris Clarke, SJ, is that making a decision always involves rejecting an alternative course of action. God knows what we do because it is His power flowing through us that enables us to act. But we decide what direction God’s power will take.

  145. Stephen Lawrence

    Hi Andreas,

    I’ve had a look at your blog.

    I don’t know how much truth or not there is in your view. And as it stands you are not even straying from determinism, as you are using a pseudo random generator.

    I do know it misses the point that we cannot overcome the luck of determinism.

    We can only introduce another form of luck into any theory.

    Luck does swallow everything and moral competence must be compatible with that.

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