Jerry Coyne writes back – about free will

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne recently wrote a post responding to my earlier post on his piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This debate can go back and forth a lot, but let me clarify a few things at least.

I’ll start by pointing out nothing that I have said in this series of posts is meant to deny that there could be threats to the idea of free will. Although I’ve stated that I have compatibilist leanings, that does not mean that I’ve outright defended compatiblism (the idea that free will is compatible with determinism) let alone that I’ve defended the claim that we have free will, let alone that I’ve defended actually using free will talk.

The points I’ve been making have been a bit more subtle than that. I’ve mainly been pointing out difficulties in certain arguments against compatibilism, though occasionally I’ve pointed out problems with certain arguments for compatibilism, and I’ve even pointed out some problems with the claim, “You have free will” – problems that would exist even if determinism is not true.

As to the latter, even if determinism is not true, there are well-known arguments as to why a mere mix of occasional indeterminism with determinism is unlikely to give us free will if we otherwise lack it (Jerry alludes to this in the Chronicle, and I agree with his brief comment on it). Moreover, even if determinism is not strictly true, it is difficult to see how I could be responsible for my own character, desires, etc., all the way down. Coming up with a picture of how this could work that is both coherent and plausible seems very difficult. But if we are not responsible for our characters, desires, etc., all the way down, that might start to run afoul of notions of moral responsibility, depending on what our intuitions are about that. And if we question moral responsibility that might lead to our rejecting the idea of free will (this assumes a widely-argued claim that an act performed with free will must be one for which I am morally responsible). Note that I am not pressing this argument, and I’m not convinced by it. I mention it only to give an example of reasoning that I simply have not dealt with (at least in any concerted manner) in these posts.

Again, what if, perhaps based on findings from Freudian psychoanalysis, or perhaps simply based on experiments in social psychology, we come to think that our psyches are sufficiently riven and/or mysterious to us that it no longer makes much sense to talk about such things as our characters or our desires? Even such words as “we”, “I”, “us”, “our”, etc., might come to seem problematic. If the world is sufficiently like that, perhaps we (!) should abandon free will talk even in the most everyday sense. I tend to think that psychoanalysis is mainly bunk, but there’s much material in the social psychology literature that could give us pause. Furthermore, none of this concern requires that strict causal determinism operates.

So, I have not demonstrated that we have free will, or even attempted to do so. Perhaps, for all I’ve argued, we don’t have it even if determinism is false. Nor have I demonstrated that compatibilism is true, merely that some of the arguments against it are not especially compelling and even seem to contain fallacies of reasoning.

Another point that should be made to try to get all this a bit clearer is that I am not especially reluctant to concede that causal determinism is true to whatever extent is required for arguments based on it to go through (assuming the arguments have no other problems). So Jerry misreads me when he thinks that I accept determinism “only grudgingly”. On the contrary, it would make the whole debate simpler for me if we knew that determinism is true. I’m not temperamentally opposed to determinism. Furthermore, I think that it’s probably true enough for our purposes. However, I wanted to be careful to bracket off certain questions so that I am not arguing with people who say, “Determinism is not true in any event!” Recall that the six pieces I was discussing pretty much assumed determinism, so I was doing likewise. Being careful to state that I am assuming determinism, even though I am not claiming to be able to prove it, certainly in the posts concerned, is not being grudging. It’s just a matter of trying to limit the range of the arguments.

Finally, at this point, I don’t necessarily think the “could have acted (or perhaps chosen) otherwise” or “your choice could have been different” sort of definition of free will is a good one. Some philosophers argue that we have free will even in some situations where we can’t act otherwise.

However, I am prepared to accept something like this definition for the sake of argument, with the proviso that I think it becomes implausible if some unusual or technical definition is given to the word “can” and its cognates such as “can’t” and “could”. If we use these words in ordinary ways, perhaps they do bring out something in what is arguably one folk conception of free will (I won’t say the folk conception, because one theme of these posts is that the folk may not all have the same conceptions and intuitions, and that may even be a reason to use different terminology).

Having said that, however, compatiblism (the claim that determinism and the existence of free will are not contradictory) and compatibilist free will (the idea that we actually have free will of a kind that is compatible with determinism) still seem to be in reasonably good shape. Or at least they don’t seem to be in too much danger from the points made in the articles that I was discussing, i.e. the articles in the Chronicle.

In his new post, Jerry runs some of the arguments together and deals with many side issues. I can’t mop up all of them without this post becoming (more) inordinately long, so my silence on some points doesn’t signal assent. To be fair to him, he wants to deal with various matters that he raised in his Chronicle piece, whereas my own post was focused pretty much on the first paragraph of it.

One issue in the new post is that he seems to have an intuition that we can’t rightly blame someone for heinous actions such as failing to save a drowning child (when doing so would have been easy, etc.), based on the thought that the person who failed to save the child was not ultimately responsible for his/her own character, set of desires, etc.

Perhaps this intuition is right (although I doubt it) – and I didn’t attempt to deal with this argument in the earlier post. I did, however, use the scenario of the drowning child to demonstrate how we ordinarily use such words as “can” (“can’t”, “could”, etc.). Let’s return to that.

Perhaps Jerry wants to use the word “can” in a special sense, but if so the word becomes equivocal in its meaning. Normally, when we say, “I can save the child” or “I could have saved the child” we mean something slightly (but not very) vague to the effect that I have whatever cognitive and physical capacities are needed, have whatever equipment is required, am on the spot, and so on. Perhaps it includes not being in the grip of a disabling phobia and not being coerced by someone with a gun. “Can” refers to a commonsensical notion – slightly vague, but no more so than most ordinary language – of having the ability to do something.

If all this applies, but I fail to save the child (perhaps because I dislike children or because I don’t want to get wet, or because I am just too lazy), it makes still makes sense to say that (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child but I don’t do so because I don’t want to. Here, the ordinary meaning of “can” is being applied correctly to the situation. If Jerry’s argument demands throwing out this ordinary usage, it’s in all sorts of trouble. If he wants to use “can” and “could” in some other sense, apart from the ordinary one, in the context of free will talk, I see no reason to believe that his conception of free will is much like what the folk have in mind when they say, for example, “Russell acted of his own free will.” The empirical research done to date, e.g. by Eddy Nahmias and his colleagues, does not suggest that the folk, or the majority of them, have some special meaning of “can”, “could”, and “ability to act” in their minds.

Jerry says:

This statement leaves me completely baffled. When Russell says “I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise,” he seems to mean only, “had I been somebody other than Russell Blackford at that moment, I might have done otherwise.” And in what sense is that free will? It’s one thing for people to chastise somebody for making a “bad choice” (an emotion that feels natural but is at bottom irrational), but it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.

But as I’ve said, if the person can (in the ordinary sense of “can”) save the child the first time round, the person can (in the same sense) also save the child the second time round. Jerry says in the original post:

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.

This is a bit confusing partly because of the tenses that Jerry uses. But think of it like this. If determinism is true and the tape is rerun, then I will act in exactly the same way whether I have free will or not. After all, why wouldn’t I? If the tape is rerun exactly, then I will have exactly the same abilities and exactly the same motivations, so why expect me to act differently, even if I have free will? This is just puzzling. Indeed, if I act differently on the replay of the tape, even though my abilities and motivations are exactly the same, that looks, if anything, as if we live in a world in which mysterious, spooky forces interfere with our lives – i.e. a world in which we don’t have free will!

If the way I acted the first time turned on my motivations (e.g. I don’t like children), then the way I act the second time will also turn on my (identical) motivations. Likewise when the tape is run the nth time, where “n” is some arbitrarily large number. If (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child the first time, then I can save the child in exactly the same way and in exactly the same sense the nth time. However I won’t do so. My failure to do so flows from my motivations, not from my abilities (or from the interference of something spooky such as the stars, the gods, or Fate).

Perhaps we don’t have free will. Although there are no spooky forces controlling us, someone might argue that, for example, we all have deeply disordant sub-conscious urges which play much the same role. As I mentioned above, there may be many worries about free will, and I haven’t tried to deal with them all. But none of this stuff about replaying tapes, and what would happen if we did so, is helpful to hard determinists like my friend Professor Coyne.

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53 Comments.

  1. Stephen Lawrence

    “Likewise when the tape is run the nth time, where “n” is some arbitrarily large number. If (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child the first time, then I can save the child in exactly the same way and in exactly the same sense the nth time.”

    Yes Russell but what is that sense?

    The sense is could if the initial conditions had been slightly and appropriately different.

    And the sense of couldn’t that Jerry is using is couldn’t given the initial conditions.

    What Jerry’s question was is in what sense is it right to blame someone if the only way they could have saved the child was could if the initial conditions had been different?

    It’s a good question.

    What folks believe is that it’s right to blame in the deserved sense.

    How do you make sense of that? And even if you were to naturalise deserved blame would that be close to what people believe in?

  2. Russell:
    How much do you lean towards compatibilism? Are you a tower of pisa, are you in danger of falling over into it. What sort of concrete arguments would straighten you up? You can tell us, nobody here will be judgmental.

    I have a general problem with the replaying of tapes i.e. the idea of blocks of mental forces so to speak remaining the same. Is not the idea that mental states are unique and never repeated more in line with our experience? A man may be jealous but that is not to say that the quality of his jealousy is the same on each and every occasion it is aroused. He may find it enhanced and confirmed or he may find it weakened by opposing evidence. In so far as it is unaltered in any situation whatever we are disposed to say ‘this person is demented on that point’.

    My core point is that character is an unfolding, never fixed attribute and not a determinative bloc.

  3. Russell, thanks for the abundance of posts and this is really an overall response.

    This (more technical) post,

    http://unfspb.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/the-revised-principle-of-alternate-possibilities-and-galen-strawsons-basic-argument/

    on how the Basic Argument undermines the initial presuppositions of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) parallels what is being hashed out across these posts and comments in the “drowning case.”

    Your highlighting of “ordinary usage” in this case seems inseparable from understanding the “could have done otherwise” in the more general sense, which Jerry is trying to address. Jerry’s definition of the replay argument, which is really a provocative way to express the sentiments of Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument and draw out its conclusion against moral responsibility and for the capacity of doing otherwise, is addressing your scenario of the “drowning child.”

    The important thing I would assume about your scenario is understanding human behavior. Why this individual acted the way they do and how society and intersubjective influences shape, control, judge it, and structure it in the future.

    If your point is that we should respect this mother’s incoherent and non-reflective use of the phrase, “you (the non-saver) could have and should have saved my child,” then that is uninteresting—it does nothing to help us understand behavior in the most thorough way possible. Or if it is an expression of behavior, it is one about the behavior of the mother and why and how she is reasoning and responding to this individual, and not about the behaviors and actions of this non-saving individual their self. In other words, we should not be trying to use this mother’s description (pushed by strong reactive attitudes and a non-reflective and careless vocabulary) to understand the behavior of this non-saving individual. You have highlighted this mother’s vocabulary (or “folk” vocabulary in general) to try to draw out an understanding of this other individual’s behavior; and that seems problematic. Surely that is a bad approach to understanding what will be the immensely complex structures of our behavior.

    In the end, what most hard incompatibilist (etc.) yearn for is for our society to take a more reflective judgment about human behavior (and about the actual possibility of “doing otherwise”) and use that to override “folk psychology,” that is, to override our reactive judgments arising from our psychology, our phenomenology, and our folk-psychological-theories (such as the mother’s reactive attitude). And then to create better systems of behavior control and social institutional arrangements given our understanding of human behavior.

    I say this in direct contrast to someone like Tamler Sommers (see his new work Relative Justice, which I do recommend) who accepts the undermining of much of ‘moral responsibility’ by Strawson-like worries but wishes to conservatively reproduce many social structures, social institutions, and reactive attitudes as much as we possibly can; why, I do not know— except for a failure to think of the structuring of selves and society in an imaginatively different way (and hopefully better way).

  4. David Hawkins

    I just have some questions.

    1) How can we prove free will or determinism? Can we prove determinism only when we can predict all events with 100% accuracy? Is this possible to do when we are limited by induction? Does the Heisenberg principle speak to this at all in that we will never be able to measure something accurately enough without disturbing it in order to make accurate predictions?

    2) Does quantum physics speak to this at all? We are learning that particles pop in and out of existence in an instant. Are these events also determined? If we “reran the exact tape” of a particle popping into existence many times, would we get the same result each time? My impression of this event so far leads me to think it would not repeat exactly each time. Does Schrodinger’s concept that the particle both does and does not pop into existence make any difference here? Is looking into Schrodinger’s box the measurement that disturbs the outcome?

    3. Maybe the only practical attitude for now to the unanswerable question of free will or determinism is accepting that both are illusions and instead we can only realistically cope with it by working in degrees of in-determinism?

  5. I wonder if it would be fair to simplify the contention here as one of causes versus reasons.

    If, to use Russell’s example, we fail to save a drowning child that we apparently “could” have saved, we will be asked for the reasons for our actions, not the causes. Maybe there are mitigating factors, but these exist in the real of reasons not causes. Coyne would have us respond “my neurons fired in such a way based on my neural state, which was the effect of a causal chain going back to the big bang.”

    That would be a bit of a non-sequitur. Yet that’s the position that Coynian hard determinism would seem to put us in, through an invalidation of reasons (if we can’t choose our behavior, we can’t justify it–it just is, irrevocably.)

  6. Another issue that seems to permeate these discussions deals with an essentialized identity. We are taking an entity or an individual as a certain dispositional set for what makes that individual that individual, but by doing so we fail to invoke determinism to its utmost understanding (one following Jerry’s definition, e.g.). This dispositional approach to human beings obscures behaviors; it obscures an explanation of the exactness of behavior. It allows for general statements regarding individuals (she could have saved the child) without carrying out explanations to the “t.” If we carry out such thorough analysis of behavior we would probably revise and specify our (reactive) statement into: She could have saved the child if this and this in her past was instead this and this. The dispositional account allows some causal structures to be acceptable claims on behaviors (your ability to swim) while ignoring or denying that other behaviors (desires for instance) were as every bit as much caused and structured as those other dispositions.

    By turning back to the “everyday” context Russell is saying the compatibilist notion is a perfect way for people to interact, to engage with each other, and to hold each other accountable. In some senses, this is of course true. We are limited beings that can only partially account for this other individual’s behavior. But what we find necessary (at least for now) to do within everyday interactions does not necessarily lead to an “understanding” of this other’s behavior, nor is it a good structure upon which to understand this other’s behavior. Our folk-psychology on this account was meant to encourage us to regulate the other’s social behavior, not to derive “truthful” accounting for that behavior (which is probably impossible in the end).

    The statement “she could have saved the child but didn’t want to” is begging us, encouraging us, to stop analyzing the behavior in this situation and instead just cast aspersions and blame on this individual. It highlights that we (generally) understand some things within your dispositions (you can swim, save people) but I do not understand others (such as structures of desires, Freudian structures). I want to manipulate those latter ones as much as I can to make you an “appropriate” social creature, and I will now do so by “blaming” you in the places where your self is malleable.

    As I said, maybe that is necessary for some spur of the moment social decisions or for creating social agents to a certain extent; it is not good for a more reflective take on our selves and social institutions and giving an account of behavior with greater specificity.

  7. Lyndon:

    “The statement “she could have saved the child but didn’t want to” is begging us, encouraging us, to stop analyzing the behavior in this situation and instead just cast aspersions and blame on this individual.”

    Agreed, it singles out the agent and ignores the wider causal context, the basic strategy of compatibilists seeking to defend moral desert. About which see a review of Bruce Waller’s new book, Against Moral Responsibility at http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm

  8. swallerstein (amos)

    Lyndon:

    If ideas of responsibility can be used to manipulate people, then manipulating others has been determined since big bang and there isn’t much we can do about it.

  9. Tom,

    I enjoyed your detailed review and look forward to reading Waller’s book.

    I was glad to see that he is more precise in attacking compatibilism, which I did not feel he did quite as directly in the past, though he certainly laid a good framework for doing just that.

  10. Amos,

    I accept determinism (for purposes of this discussion) through and through, and also accept the conundrum that what “we” or “I” decide right now will be determined. That does not mean that we will not or should not (assuming we have been determined to care about our selves) strive towards creating better social structural systems and intersubjective relations.

    Your statement is a bad case of fatalism that says that our social interactions and behaviors must happen the same way tomorrow that they happen today. It is true that what we decide to do and what we will decide to do is assumingly determined; that does not mean we will decide to continue to hold people “morally responsible” in the same manner that we have “always” held people accountable, as encouraged by the reactive attitudes and our naive phenomenology, say. With breakthroughs in science or more reflective attitudes about the contingencies of self and societies we may decide to change to different and “better” structures for regulating society and “manipulating” people.

    There is a similar problem with many evolutionary psychological structures: just because our genes gives emotional responses in certain ways does not mean our social structures have to grant the “goodness” of such structures that seem to directly to align with those emotional responses. Some things may be close to impossible to structure differently because of intense cognitive or emotional disturbance, but that is not generally the case for more complex gene/environment cognitively influenced social institutions.

  11. swallerstein (amos)

    Lyndon:

    I read you as saying that only you, the enlightened hard determinists, can be effective moral agents, that those who see responsibility in terms of old-fashioned folk pyschology are “blind” (unenlightened) and that given your enlightenment, you are able to change the benighted state of things.

    First of all, that’s a huge and frightening ethical claim. It frightens me at least.

    Second, to go back to what Chris Schoen says above, the hardline determinists seem to claim that there are no reasons, only causes (determining behavior), that my reasons (or motives) are ex post facto rationalizations.

    Now, you appear to contradict yourself since you attribute lofty reasons (and motives) to yourself: you want to create a better world, a world without a sense of moral responsibility.

  12. Russell, I’ve been trying to follow all of these threads, and as I’ve said before, I’ve really enjoyed it. But I keep getting hung up on your “can/will” point. I see it sort of as follows:

    Two guys are wanting to race their cars. Jim has a Ferrari and Jake has a stock Toyota Camry. As their waiting for the light to turn green, a buddy of Jake’s lets some of the air out of Jim’s tires, and Jim loses.

    Now, an obvious response could be that if Jake’s friend hadn’t flattened Jim’s tires, the Ferrari totally could have won. But it also makes sense to say that Ferrari’s can totally smoke Camry’s in a race, in a general sense. But, again, they can beat Camry’s “if.” If something…if lots of things.

    And this is where I get hung up on your “can/will” thing, and I think others have tried to hash this out with you, so I’m sorry if I seem very redundant here. But every time you point out that a given person “could/can” save a child, I always read it as “can…if!” If certain prerequisites have occurred, then that guy could save the drowning child. But, if! But, if “not if” then no, he can’t….right?

    Ferrari’s can beet Camry’s in 1/4 mile races…if they have air in their tires, and gas in the tank and so on and so on. This guy can save a drowning child if the entire history of the universe was indeed leading up to him doing just that.

    That’s about how I see the “can/will” argument.

  13. I like the idea that your discussion of the replay seems to imply that determinism is to some extent a *requirement* for free will. If what I actually choose to do or think at any point is not a function of the immediately preceding mental state which I have by previous cogitation brought into being, then that indeterminacy denies rather than grants me the capacity to control my own mental destiny.

  14. alQpr » Blog Archive » Is Free Will an Illusion? - pingback on April 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm
  15. Now, you appear to contradict yourself since you attribute lofty reasons (and motives) to yourself: you want to create a better world, a world without a sense of moral responsibility.

    Yes, exactly. If hard determinism is accurate, then any statements of intent or preference are rendered meaningless. We can advocate what we like, but it’s just a futile noise-making, with no capacity for actual persuasion, which would require a mind to actively compare and evaluate alternatives.

    “Striving” is a logical impossibility under Coynian Hard Determinism, which can permit no mental effort whatsoever, any more than it can permit a river to “strive” to find the shortest path to the sea, or lightning to strive to ground itself to earth with the least energy expenditure.

    If we’re going to use the language of determinism, Lyndon, then let’s be consistent about it, and not smuggle in intentionality where it doesn’t belong. Choosing from among alternatives (moral or otherwise) through any kind of reasoning is an impossibility in a determined system, where the choice has already been made by prior causes. You can’t pick and choose which instances of volition to discard and which to retain.

  16. Stephen Lawrence

    “If we’re going to use the language of determinism, Lyndon, then let’s be consistent about it, and not smuggle in intentionality where it doesn’t belong. Choosing from among alternatives (moral or otherwise) through any kind of reasoning is an impossibility in a determined system, where the choice has already been made by prior causes. You can’t pick and choose which instances of volition to discard and which to retain.”

    Chris, Lyndon is being consistent about it.

    You are expressing the belief that alternatives are alternatives that we could select in the actual situation. I find any expression of this useful as philosophers do argue over whether people think this and yet of course they do, the internet is littered with examples.

    We’ve already learnt to intentionally build amazing deterministic choice making machines, Dennett’s good example is the chess playing computer.

    Of course the computer evaluates possibilities and acts upon the result of evaluation process.

    It’s not that the choice has already been made by prior causes, the computer definately does the working out. It’s only that it couldn’t work it out any other way given prior causes. But what use would that be to the computer???? None, and the same goes for us.

    The hard determinist who get’s it right says we have all the capabilities of naturally selected biological choice making machines.

    No more but NO LESS!

    That’s what Lyndon is doing.

  17. swallerstein (amos)

    Stephen:

    Except that people have reasons for their choices and computers don’t and that although those reasons are at times mere rationalizations of unconscious choices, at other times those reasons determine my choices.

    Yes, I concede that often my choices are determined by unconscious factors, by habits, by my genes, by biases of which I am unaware and that my choices are never totally conscious and rational in the sense that, say, Sartre posits in Being and Nothingness, yet at times my choices are more or less determined by conscious reasons, reasons which allow me to over-ride my unconscious tendencies and habits.

    How those reasons arise in a deterministic universe I know not, but a whole lot of human behavior is more clearly explained by positing a conscious and rational ability to choose (which some people seem to have more than others and which never is wholly conscious and rational) than by claiming that such ability to choose is an illusion.

    It is a bit precipitious to imagine that in 2012
    we know that all there is to know about the mental (do I dare use the word “mental”?) mechanisms of choice. Neuroscience has yet to explain how we choose when we choose.

    Given the preliminary findings of neuroscience, the hard determinists seem to want to jump to the hasty and simplistic conclusion that rational and conscious choice is illusory, although my own experience of myself and my own experience of working with others show that at times it exists and at times it doesn’t.

    It is interesting that when Lyndon, an advocate of hard determinism, wants to explain his project of making people see that moral responsibility is an illusion, he uses the language of reasons and of choice to refer to his own project, that is, the language of moral responsibility.

    Yes, I know that many people are bipolar or borderline or have other conditions which signify that they do not generally choose what they do and that they should be treated, not punished, but that is no reason for throwing out the baby (the basic sense that we are in some sense responsible for our acts) with the bathwater (the common sense tendency to imagine that everyone is always responsible for all their actions).

  18. First, I was not trying to make any claims supporting or denying conscious involvment during our complex “choice” processes and algorithmic-like processing. Our brain seems to require consciousness (or at least awareness) when they are doing complex things. I think some of that is a design issue, many of these useful reasoning processes and even actions could be done without us ever being conscious of it, but we seem to usually be conscious of our more complex willed actions that are central to our “self’s” actions.

    The idea that our consciousness gives “reasons” in a way that the unconscious doesn’t seems problematic. When a human (consciously) sees a good, winning chess move and decides to put the other player in checkmate, she does so using “good” reasoning, a good structure for winning chess games. But the computer that has a program that will always make that same move, likewise is performing “good” reasoning. It has “analyzed” the situation so that it performs the move to win. The reason why the move is made and is beneficial towards a certain end, I believe, will essentially be the same whether that happens consciously or unconsciously- the logic is the same, so to speak. The human player does not gain an added diminition of “chess reasoning” because of the capacities of consciousness (they do to a certain extent for now, but that gets more complicated).

    Furthermore, the Basic Argument is impervious, from my understanding, to conscious processes. And Harris points this out as well. What does it mean for one conscious thought to lead to another conscious thought; or for one reason to lead to the next “reason” within my brain/mind? What would it or could it mean to control that process? The possible robber standing in front of the bank or chess player looking at a possible check mate move does not some how will “good” reasoning (or bad reasoning) into existent at that one time outside of a long chain of genes and environment (chess practice, e.g.). If these individuals have a “good” chain of reasoning or a “good” thought at the appropriate times it would be odd to think that they somehow willed that reasoning process into existence in a way that would stand opposite the “luck” argument.

    One more caveat, there is enough consistency in human behavior that peoples’ conscious thoughts (and thus subsequent actions) usually make sense in light of their past history, at least to a general degree. If you find your self playing some board game that you do not know the rules for, you do not have good conscious thoughts or good reasoning skills for the strategy of this game. If you do have a “good” thought it is because it parallels some other game or life situation or it fits into natural reasoning structures of the brain. And when you lose that game to the seasoned pro, who probably had at least some conscious thoughts that were good as regards winning the game, that seasoned pro did not do something “ultimately” deserving as far as bringing about those conscious thoughts and thus his actions in the manner she did. Now, in the end, she did have “good” thoughts for winning such games, the kind we wish to create in people if we deem winning this game important. Yes, I believe that such an analysis extends to “moral” questions and to why people have the thoughts they have regarding harming others or society and why they carry out their actions. And the better strategy for helping such people have “good” thoughts at the appropriate time is better practice of the game (better socialization/education, less poverty, more drug rehabilitation, etc.), than to blame people and throwing inordinate numbers of people in jail for long times.

  19. Stephen,

    The problem is that the word “choice,” applied to computers, does not and cannot mean what it does in the sense under contention, as it relates to moral responsibility.

    We can see examples of the problem of applying intentionality to our machines shot throughout literature and science fiction–take Fail Safe, for example (or its satirical cousin Dr. Strangelove.) Once (in these stories) the deterministic rules have been set in place, they cannot be unset, no matter what the circumstances. Once the nuclear strike has been initiated, it is a fait accomplit–at no point in the causal chain is reconsideration possible. This is the very opposite of human agency, which has the capacity to evaluate the context of its decisions even in unplanned ways, in real time. In Fail Safe, even human behavior (among Strategic Air Command personnel) is militarized to the point where it is “deterministically” unable to second-guess the wisdom of carrying out its orders. (Hard Determinism has always been alive and well in the Armed Services). This should highlight the difference between the two types of “choice” we are discussing, which it is important not to conflate. And it goes directly to your question “what use would that be to the computer [or to us]?” Averting a nuclear holocaust seems a pretty good use to me.

    A chess-playing computer is determined by its program to win games of chess (to the best of its ability.) It cannot do otherwise. It cannot put in a half-hearted effort, it cannot throw a game for a kickback, it cannot throw a game out of sympathy for an opponent who needs a boost. It cannot, in short, make any choices except those it was programmed to make, which are limited to evaluating moves against a rubric of likelihood of victory. It cannot decide to learn Parchesi or Whist. It cannot sulk when losing. It cannot commit suicide. It can only execute its program. It cannot, in any meaningful sense, reason. (I think there is a very good argument to be made that reasoning requires the ability to hold symbolic content in one’s consciousness. I won’t make it here, but I mention it in passing as another illustration of how intension-talk can get out of hand when talking about computers. Redefining ourselves in the terms of a tool we have made, however complex, is just as fallacious as the religious impulse to assert we were made out of clay by a god, because we can sculpt men of clay.)

    As for the argument that humans are biological computers programmed by natural selection, there is certainly a partial truth in this. We have instincts and drives that statistically tend to maximize our survival, and if we wish to we can apply conscious reason to that concern as well (for example through medicine). The concern of moral philosophy, however, and the “problem” of consciousness and culture, is the question of why humans ever do things that contradict the logic of natural selection. If we were in fact programmed by nature to obey Darwinian ends, how would we explain that we so often don’t, and furthermore that these deviations are among our most treasured examples of moral rectitude? (In the US, for example Medicare is sacred, and yet from a Darwinian standpoint, utterly useless).

    The problem becomes starker when we recognize that when it comes to differential survival, science, logic and reason seem to offer no clear advantage at all. Secular democracies today are generally being out-bred by religious cultures, which would seem to make reason a kind of maladaptation. If our biology is “determining” a tendency toward faith and superstition, then by what instrument, and to what end, would we advocate secularism?

    This is why I ask for consistency, because if adhered to it will point to the logical absurdity of hard determinism, a doctrine which only seems plausible when we allow ourselves to attenuate between multiple meanings of the same words. Put most baldly, if having no free will means anything at all, it means the end of shoulds and oughts (where do they come from?), the end of judgement, of praise and blame (what’s the point?), none of which can survive the loss of our capacity to “freely” choose from among alternatives. And yet none of the advocates of hard determinism seem to have much interest in cleansing their language accordingly. Harris and Coyne in particular are quite the moralists, with notably strong opinions on the way we should shape our culture.

  20. Stephen Lawrnce

    Hi Chris,

    “The problem is that the word “choice,” applied to computers, does not and cannot mean what it does in the sense under contention, as it relates to moral responsibility.”

    Because we can’t be morally responsible in the traditional sense.

    That’s what the battle is over.

    “We can see examples of the problem of applying intentionality to our machines shot throughout literature and science fiction–take Fail Safe, for example (or its satirical cousin Dr. Strangelove.) Once (in these stories) the deterministic rules have been set in place, they cannot be unset, no matter what the circumstances. Once the nuclear strike has been initiated, it is a fait accomplit–at no point in the causal chain is reconsideration possible.”

    What you are saying is reconsideration is impossible if determinism is true.

    But it makes no sense, the second time around the conditions are slightly different and so the weighing up process might be slightly different.

    “This is the very opposite of human agency, which has the capacity to evaluate the context of its decisions even in unplanned ways, in real time.”

    Because we can do that doesn’t mean it’s not the one thing we could do given the past.

    Of course if it did you would have proof of indeterminism.

    “In Fail Safe, even human behavior (among Strategic Air Command personnel) is militarized to the point where it is “deterministically” unable to second-guess the wisdom of carrying out its orders.”

    So the personnel could second- guess the wisdom but won’t given the past.

    What’s the problem?

    “(Hard Determinism has always been alive and well in the Armed Services). This should highlight the difference between the two types of “choice” we are discussing, which it is important not to conflate.”

    No it doesn’t. One is real and the other makes no sense.

    ” And it goes directly to your question “what use would that be to the computer [or to us]?” Averting a nuclear holocaust seems a pretty good use to me.”

    We can avert a nuclear disaster if we choose to and have the capability to do so.

    So can a computer, so it doesn’t appear to be any use to us or the computer.

    also if we can indeterministically avert a nuclear disater, we can indeterministically set one off. :shock:

    “A chess-playing computer is determined by its program to win games of chess (to the best of its ability.) It cannot do otherwise. It cannot put in a half-hearted effort,”

    A half hearted effort can be pre-determined.

    ” it cannot throw a game for a kickback,”

    That can be predetermined.

    ” it cannot throw a game out of sympathy for an opponent who needs a boost.”

    That can be predetermined. And the point about choices is it appears that given the circumstances we couldn’t have done otherwise.

    So take this sentence: I started the game in strongly competetive mood but on getting well ahead I could see my friend was getting demoralised and needed a boost, I wanted this for him and wanted him to enjoy the game so eased off the pressure a bit.

    I started the game in strongly competetive mood but on getting well ahead I could see my friend was getting demoralised and needed a boost, I wanted this for him and wanted him to enjoy the game so turned up the heat and crushed him.

    It just makes no sense.

    “It cannot, in short, make any choices except those it was programmed to make,”

    But Chris thank goodnes for that, it’s taken many 100,s of thousands of years, even millions, to hone us into the amazing choice making machines that we are.

    The last thing we want is indeterminism to screw it all up. :smile:

    ” which are limited to evaluating moves against a rubric of likelihood of victory. It cannot decide to learn Parchesi or Whist. It cannot sulk when losing. It cannot commit suicide.”

    All can be predetermined, all can be the one choice we could make given the past.

    “It can only execute its program. It cannot, in any meaningful sense, reason. (I think there is a very good argument to be made that reasoning requires the ability to hold symbolic content in one’s consciousness.”

    And what’s the problem with that being the one possible thing we could do given our past?

    ” I won’t make it here, but I mention it in passing as another illustration of how intension-talk can get out of hand when talking about computers. Redefining ourselves in the terms of a tool we have made, however complex, is just as fallacious as the religious impulse to assert we were made out of clay by a god, because we can sculpt men of clay.)”

    But I’m not doing that, I’m just saying computers do evaluate options. Options are things we could do if… not could in the actual situation.

    “As for the argument that humans are biological computers programmed by natural selection, there is certainly a partial truth in this. We have instincts and drives that statistically tend to maximize our survival, and if we wish to we can apply conscious reason to that concern as well (for example through medicine). The concern of moral philosophy, however, and the “problem” of consciousness and culture, is the question of why humans ever do things that contradict the logic of natural selection.”

    Not convinced that they do but it’s specifially predeterminism we are interested in.

    ” If we were in fact programmed by nature to obey Darwinian ends, how would we explain that we so often don’t, and furthermore that these deviations are among our most treasured examples of moral rectitude? (In the US, for example Medicare is sacred, and yet from a Darwinian standpoint, utterly useless).”

    I think this is confused, but I’m no expert so won’t comment on evolution.

    There can be no such thing as deviation from our predetermined path. Either we have one in which case we never deviate. Or we don’t have one in which case we never deviate.

    “The problem becomes starker when we recognize that when it comes to differential survival, science, logic and reason seem to offer no clear advantage at all.”

    I’ll leave that to the experts. Predeterminism and natural selection are two different subjects.

    “Secular democracies today are generally being out-bred by religious cultures, which would seem to make reason a kind of maladaptation. If our biology is “determining” a tendency toward faith and superstition, then by what instrument, and to what end, would we advocate secularism?”

    Because people think superstition is harmful.

    “This is why I ask for consistency,”

    And you are getting it.

    ” Put most baldly, if having no free will means anything at all, it means the end of shoulds and oughts (where do they come from?),”

    Dunno but I hardly think indeterminism is likely to be the answer. And even if it was, would indeterministic choices be required. And even if that were true is there any way of overcoming the luck of determinism, which is the problem for incompatibilist free will?

    I think this is just a wild goose chase.

    ” the end of judgement, of praise and blame (what’s the point?),”

    Obviously blame functions to discourage certain behaviour and praise functions to encourage certain behaviour.

    That’s compatible with determinism. What some of us are saying is there is a point but it can’t be fair in the way people suppose because it’s the luck of the draw which past each of us happens to have.

    And that freedom and responsibility must be compatible with determinism because this luck cannot be overcome by throwing some dice in with the dominoes.

    ” none of which can survive the loss of our capacity to “freely” choose from among alternatives.”

    This makes no sense except in the compatibilist sense.

    Of course, as moral judgement functions to influence choices we are interested in choices which can be influenced.

    ” And yet none of the advocates of hard determinism seem to have much interest in cleansing their language accordingly.”

    Mostly there is no need. It’s a question of being mindful that could if… means would if the past had been different.

    The best morals whatever they are, need to be aligned with that.

    Which is why it’s so important to affirm that freedom and responsibility are compatible with determinism.

  21. Ah, this is easy! Of course free will is not an all-or-nothing measure. It’s nasty to see how scholastic discussions on crucial definitions still waste time in pursuing absolute definitions.

    Come on, guys, of course, no animal have complete free will but some individuals count on free will more than others. Now the questions are which factors determine the relative “level” of free will, and whether free will is at all avoidable through, say, manipulation or indoctrination. I profoundly doubt about a possible non-free individual, but these two methods appear to work finely most of the time and in most cases.

  22. Stephen,

    Your comment here is really all over the map, and I can’t really address all of its logical inconsistencies and non sequiturs. (You seem, for example, to be simultaneously arguing for compatibilism and incompatibilism.)

    I do think it’s important to mention, though, that no one in this thread or the other related threads on this topic is suggesting that free will can be derived from “indeterminism.” That’s not what the argument against hard determinism (or incompatibilism) reduces to. An indetermined system (or an indetermined portion of a partially determined system) lacks both the necessary reasons and causes that would make free will anything but a caprice.

    The question being wrestled over is whether the mere fact of a determined world (which is a presumption made on all sides for the sake of this argument) is sufficient to deny the reality of human agency in choosing behavior and dispositions from among alternatives. Neither indeterminism nor indeterminacy has any significant bearing on the quarrel.

  23. To answer Chris Schoen’s: “The question being wrestled over is whether the mere fact of a determined world (which is a presumption made on all sides for the sake of this argument) is sufficient to deny the reality of human agency in choosing behavior and dispositions from among alternatives.”

    One could use Stephen Lawrnce’s:”Because we can do that doesn’t mean it’s not the one thing we could do given the past.
    Of course if it did you would have proof of indeterminism.”

    That’s why the wrestling would go on and on, and most people would think that is exciting to see. I hesitate. I think the uncertainty of free will’s definition clearly depicts fundamental differences between human beings. Not so much in their capacity to experience their own free will but in their ability to admit the determined background in their lives.
    I insist, without a proper free-will measure or experiment all discussions in this subject are futile. Nonetheless, I still like to term free will the fact that certain individuals seem to have a far more complex behavioral trait, which may recall the more absolute and paradigmatic idea of free will. Perhaps it’s all a matter of more actual choices, or just more flexibility in the mind, or even multiplicity of nervous reflexes and/or mental tasks???

  24. Chris, from the comment above:

    “A chess-playing computer is determined by its program to win games of chess (to the best of its ability.) It cannot do otherwise. It cannot put in a half-hearted effort, it cannot throw a game for a kickback, it cannot throw a game out of sympathy for an opponent who needs a boost . . .”

    Chris, the ability “to do otherwise” here is precisely what is at issue. If the human opponent of the chess computer, say in a pivotal game, decides to quit, you are now claiming that this “quitting” proves her capacity “to do otherwise.” But that is precisely what is at stake. The hard incompatibilist will claim that the algorithm of genes/environment of this individual up to that precise moment of quitting is what determined her to quit; and as far as the decision of “quitting” is concerned, she literally could not have done otherwise. The fact that humans have a wider range of options (of programming structures and capacities for behavior) does not mean that they “can do otherwise” in that precise moment. It only means that they (their bodies following some “algorithm”) could quit and go play checkers or go run through the forest. But what is at issue is why and how this choice is being made; why this behavior is being carried out in the manner that it is.

    The chess example is used to compare decision making and reasoning processes during similar processes, during chess games, so that we can better understand human “decisions” as they compare to computer “decisions.” Mainly, our “rationality” and conscious “decisions” during chess is outdone by computer “decisions” and “rationality” during chess. Similarly, algorithmic structures of our “reasoning” and the limits therein will extend to areas outside of chess, including into such holistic goals of whether we continue to play the game itself.

    Furthermore, computers in the age of viruses and bugs do all sorts of crazy things that have nothing to do with the game of Chess. Such a bug may arise during a game of Chess but this obviously does not mean that computers have the capacity to do otherwise. If in accordance with the “desires” of my computer as it has now been “programmed” with a virus, it quits the Chess game and breaks into Tom Petty’s Free Falling, it obviously hasn’t “chosen” otherwise.

    The fact that we consciously choose, consciously process a very different activity when we “choose” to quit playing chess, again does not mean we are imbued with some “ability to do otherwise,” except in the trivial concept that we can do other things besides play chess. Take what is probably a common occurrence across the land. During the middle of a game online, the human chess player frustrated at being overmatched, quits the game and decides to watch porn instead. The algorithm, the brain/mind processing, and the transition from one activity to another, is going to best be explained by understanding the structures of the brain/mind, coping strategies for frustration, other internal drives, other past rewarded behaviors (looking at porn is almost always rewarding, structuring of future decisions), etc. What we are interested in is why we choose in the manner that we do; why we behave as we do; why this individual went from this activity to this activity; that is, WHY they did otherwise.

    We do not design computers to crash or launch alternative programs after 3 minutes, for good reasons. Obviously, as of now, we are “programmed” and have the capacity for being programmed, in ways that no computer is close to; but that is not what is important about the analogy. We are the greatest machines in the universe at this moment, with robust capacities across many varied activities, including representing the state of our being and our different goals, both of which we constantly update and self-regulate. The reason why at any one time we self-update our goals or desires is something that falls to luck; it is something that “we” are not capable of doing “otherwise.” We will see this if we are detailed in our analysis and the process is deterministic, as is assumed here.

  25. Lyndon, I think you misconstrue me.

    I did not argue (in the passage you cite) that a human can do other than what it does. I argued more modestly while that a computer cannot do other than what it is programmed to do, this is not a statement we can make about humans given that humans are not (I go on to argue) actually programmed.

    If you want to take issue with my criticism of the “humans are computers programmed by evolution” model (see the last three paragraphs of my response to Stephen), I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Until then I continue to maintain that the human/computer analogy is not legitimate, for the reasons I have given. Talk of human behavior as “algorithmic” needs to be defended, not simply re-asserted if the conversation is to progress. There are significant logical problems posed by this model, some of which I have cited above, some of which have been raised elsewhere (e.g. how to avoid the trap of epiphenomenalism).

  26. I do think it’s important to mention, though, that no one in this thread or the other related threads on this topic is suggesting that free will can be derived from “indeterminism.” That’s not what the argument against hard determinism (or incompatibilism) reduces to. An indetermined system (or an indetermined portion of a partially determined system) lacks both the necessary reasons and causes that would make free will anything but a caprice.

        Chris Schoen

    I would beg to somewhat differ. One of Strawson’s arguments is that you would have to be behind you to be responsible for who you are, which is obviously absurd. His claim is that indeterminism doesn’t solve anything because you are not the reason the coin lands on heads or tails. It’s just a matter of luck. Or as you put it: it’s a caprice. If it can be shown that Strawson is wrong, then I think the direction of this discussion would change.

    The implication is that we do indeed have to address indeterminism to conclude whether the Basic Argument is correct or not (since Strawson makes a concrete statement about why indeterminacy is irrelevant). As I see it, there are two contentious issues here:

    -What does you mean?
    -What does being unlucky mean?

    If you means the partially indeterminate system, then how does Strawson’s argument make any sense? I think it only seems to make sense because whenever indetermination is mentioned, determinists think of flipping coins (i.e. an external process done by some entity we clearly all can identify as you).

    Let me illustrate what I mean by first adding other mechanistic random generators to the picture. It doesn’t really matter if they’re pseudo-random or not. This, in some sense, does reinforce your point that indeterminism isn’t the real issue. But why it’s not an issue changes the whole perspective since it puts in question Strawson deliberately absurd understanding of ultimate responsibility.

    Imagine that there are 3 ways of making a choice:

      A coin
      A six side dice
      A roulette wheel

    Let’s imagine you will do some type of act only if the result lands on a specific face (or number). We now can see what the chance is that you will act in a given type of situation depending on what type of random generator you have:

      Coin: 1/2
      Dice: 1/6
      Roulette: 1/37

    Which person should be considered more “capricious”? Caprice is a statement about predictability. Obviously, the least capricious system is one with a generator not included above: one with a single face (i.e. an indisputably deterministic system). And the most capricious is a a two-faced system (i.e. a completely indeterministic system). Between these extremes are infinite shades of grey.

    Does not what generator is inside of you, at least in part, define who you are? You do not have to be behind the generator. You are the generator! You are capricious and NOT the subject of caprice.

    If I’m right, we can hold people to account for being generators that have too many or too few faces, regardless of how they got them. And whose more rigid and selfish processes can’t alter their probabilities based on self-evaluations after the fact. I think the problem of what you intends is a core issue.

    I think the important question is whether we are ultimately responsible for understanding you, or if you are ultimately responsible for understanding yourself. Determinism presume we can understand you and puts the onus on us. This does not seem right to me. The onus is on you. We have to assume, by default, that you are incomprehensible. By default, you have to take responsibility for yourself in the context of us. This is the only way a system can arise where we take care of each other. If we are responsible for understanding and taking care of you, then who is left to understand and take care of us?

  27. Chris, I disagree with your statements because it should more appropriately read:

    “Humans are programmed by their genes (evolution) and environment.”

    You take a person, essentialize her across time, such as the length of the chess game, and claim that they therefore are not “programmed” based on the behaviors that we see in them, because they may do something like “quit the game.” The fact that the brain constantly updates itself means that we have to include each moment as a different “programmed” entity.

    Humans are “programmed” to be social creatures, to engage in various activities, to multitask, etc., and constantly self-update that process; the fact that we do all these things in comparison to the computer which is programmed for a single purpose of chess, does not mean that we are any “less programmed” but only that we certainly are at least more variedly programmed. That difference says nothing about “our ability to do otherwise,” except for in trivial senses.

    I am using algorithm loosely, such as the “processes that are structuring and determining this decision.” Under determinism, as is being granted, the structures leading to the decision are “algorithmic” in nature; I am not sure how we can “understand” determinism if they are not algorithmic. In other words, the computer, say Watson on Jeopardy!, “chooses” an answer based on a calculated algorithmic process; that is all I mean when applying such a structure to the input/output structures of the human brain (and hence behavior). The processes in Ken Jenning’s brain/mind, including conscious ones when he answered questions and used language (worse than the computer Watson did), are working, I assume, in an algorithmic function because Ken’s brain and behavior responses are “programmed” in some way.

  28. swallerstein (amos)

    Lyndon:

    You say it yourself: we up-date ourselves.

    That ability to up-date ourselves is choice, is freedom.

    I up-date myself in response to circumstances, based on my genes, my background, my education, my habits, my social class, my culture, but that up-dating is creative, and that’s what most of us mean by “free”.

  29. The ability for a system to update its own structures means the system is dynamic, not that it is “free” in most senses of the term.

    If not obvious, I know too little about computer programming and structures to speak authoritive on any narrow issue, but take this program for instance, the Akinator genie program. A fun waste of time, for a little while.

    http://us.akinator.com/

    If we consider this “program” an agent, then it updates its self in a cool way, that other creatures in the world find fun and useful and encourage it to continue to update its self. I believe as outside users interact with the program, sensory information so to speak, it takes in that information, and uses that information to encourage more people to interact with it- given its cool genie-like powers. (It was also obvious created and structured by humans and is now kept up by humans and other machines.) The capacity to update ones self, though, does not make ones self free or capable of “choice;” except in the bare sense that it is “sifting” intelligent information in the world as it comes in contact with such information to help maintain a being that is capable of more self-sustaining interactions with that world in the future.

    Human self-updating is far more complex than this kind of program but it does not mean it is of a different “nature.” In our self updating, including the arisal of our conscious self, the only way in which we know of our self (?); our self consciously feels the self updating over years and years, and such encourages us to believe that “we”- the conscious self- controls that self updating in a robust way. That illusion is also underwritten by the fact that the conscious self only knows a minor part of brain functions that are creating most of our actions and self-updating structures.

  30. Amazing how much it can divagate about something which is simply beyond abstraction or language acrobatics. Is this a public service paid by worker’s tax contributions?

  31. Amazing how much it can be divagated about something which is simply beyond abstraction or language acrobatics. Is this a public service paid by worker’s tax contributions?

  32. @Lyndon,

    It’s uncontroversial to say that genes and environment are the two major influences on evolution by natural selection. Environment is not a separate influence, it’s already part of the model (otherwise, just what are organisms adapting to?)

    The question I am asking you to respond to is this: If we are programmed, by what or who? If your answer is natural selection, then how are we to explain any human behavior that does not conform to the demands of natural selection? (My earlier example of Medicare).

    Let’s be clear about this. Natural selection’s “algorithm” is very simple: differential reproductive success. (Strictly speaking this isn’t even an algorithm, since no specific instruction set need be observed.) All adaptation in nature reduces to this (if orthodox evolutionary theory is correct). If you therefore can plausibly explicate all human behavior under this rubric, you might begin to have an argument that humans behavior is “programmed” by evolution. But even a passing familiarity with evolutionary theory and human sociology should give you a sense of how daunting this task would have to be.

    I am using algorithm loosely, such as the “processes that are structuring and determining this decision.”

    Yes, I agree that’s quite loose! Following this definition, we would perhaps also be tempted to say that continental drift, the movement of planets and satellites in orbit, the courses of rivers and streams, and the patterns of sun spots and solar flares are also “algorithmic.” And what or whom programmed them? There are limits to how far we want to apply the metaphor of calculation. In the physical world, we want to be very careful not to confuse our descriptions of processes with the causes of those processes.

    But before we get into the problem of intentionality, it would be best to start with my questions above. If we were programmed, as you say, what were we programmed for?

  33. @Andreas,

    I sincerely don’t understand your comment.

    I had suggested that no one in the thread was defending free will based upon indeterminacy or indeterminism. You reply by citing Strawson to the effect that indeterminancy is irrelevant. So we are all in agreement then? On that score at least.

    Furthermore, to be fair, this thread concerns Coyne’s argument against free will, which differs significantly from Strawson’s in its structure. I don’t happen to put much stock in Strawson’s Basic Argument either, but that’s a little tangential to the points Russell has raised in the OP, and the comments herein. Perhaps Strawson has some people in mind who are arguing for free will on the grounds of an incompletely determined system, but whoever they are, Russell is clearly not among them. Nor am I, and from what I can tell, Amos is, at worst, agnostic on the matter. (“How … reasons arise in a deterministic universe I know not”).

    My point was merely that the argument was not between determinism and indeterminism. It’s taken for granted by all parties (at least for the sake of argument) that to whatever extent indeterminism plays a role in human cognition and behavior, it cannot be invoked to explain such a thing as “free will” (if such a thing exists.) The question here is whether or not determinism in human biology can be reconciled with the appearance of our choosing our own behaviors and dispositions.

  34. swallerstein (amos)

    It seems to me that we experience choice. I’m not talking about the kind of choices Libet studies or about whether we opt for chocolate or vanilla ice cream, but that we deliberate, we step out of the box, we step back into the box, we are capable of identifying some of our boxes (although not all of them), we update ourselves, we make radical changes in our life styles, habits and ways of being.

    I note that way of choosing in myself and in others. I see others kick the habit, leave behind dead, dying or noxious relationships, emigrate to new lands where they learn new languages and customs, deliberate about complex ethical issues and finally, after much inner turmoil, opt for alternatives that go against their so-called self-interest.

    It seems that choices are made, not always, not in a vacuum, not out of nothing, not by a spooky ghost disconnected to the brain, but that there are brain mechanisms, not yet understood by neuroscience, which allow us to decide, that we can step back from or out of the box (our genes, our education, our culture, our programming, our family upbringing) and radically update ourselves.

    It seems to me that the hard determinists are trying to force the reality of our experiences to fit a theory rather than accept that reality often does not conveniently fit into our theories.

  35. Chris:

    I am saying take a 20-year-old male at the time he decides to rob a bank. What is programmed is his brain/mind at this time, which is programmed by the combination of his genes and his 20 years of experiences that have produced this particular structure of body/brain/mind. He is not programmed by “evolution” or even his genes to behave the way he does at this time. Having behaved and received feedback from sensory information over the span of a life time, the brain constantly restructures itself to respond more appropriately in the future. There hence, the importance of socialization/education and social institutions (including “knowledge” of deterrent punishments, say) in determining the structure of this brain/mind at a particular time and the behavior that will follow at any particular time for this being.

    The “programming” of the brain/mind is very different during this decision at age 20 than it is compared to the “programming” of this brain/mind at the time of a decision when he is 30 or when he was 10 or even when he was 19. There is obviously a great deal of continuity within these structures as well that consistently reacts similarly to certain similar environmental cues; hence “Character.”

    “Algorithmic” is probably a poor choice of words, but I only mean that given an entity, say the body/brain/mind of our 20-year-old, and given a certain environmental interaction (with certain sensations pressing upon the brain/mind), there will only be one output. Simplifying the process, when the 20-year-old is standing outside the bank and first looks down the street and sees there are no cops in sight, his brain/mind takes in this information and performs (only one) behavior, say stepping inside the bank. With new sensations, such as “looking like an easy job,” the structure of his brain/mind continues with the next output (robbing the bank) given how it processed the previous input.

    Another example, say when (the computer) Watson was on Jeopardy!, he took in the input sensations of Trebek’s voice that was asking a question, ran such inputs through the “algorithmic” (?) processing of his “brain” (CPU) structures, and arrived at a certain behavior, say, ringing in and answering a question. Ken, likewise, takes in the same input, runs some “algorithmic” process in the structure (program) of his brain/mind and gives only one output. Given my lack of computer knowledge, I tend to call any “behavioral” output by a machine the outcome of an algorithmic structure; and I assume humans, like Ken on Jeopardy!, are working in at least a similarly structured way as a machine (but not a structurally similar way). So I was using algorithm to mean any necessitated cause-effect structure.

    I agree on the important point that our description of the world is not the world in itself; but I still assume the reason and processes of why the rock rolls down the hill in the manner it does is happening in an “algorithmic” way. Given the state of an object, a certain environmental interaction, the output of the object was necessitated.

  36. Dianelos Georgoudis

    To say that a chess playing computer “chooses” its next move, makes as much sense as saying that a calculator “chooses” to display 625 when one types 25 x 25 =. Or that a thermostat “chooses” to turn on the heating when it senses that the temperature is too low.

  37. stephen lawrnce

    Dianelos,

    The computer evaluates options (possible moves) and moves on the bases of the evaluation.

    Looks like choosing to me.

    But that aside, what we see from it is options are *possible* in a sense compatible with determinism.

    Which is key.

  38. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen,

    The computer evaluates options (possible moves) and moves on the bases of the evaluation.

    Looks like choosing to me.

    By the same measure, the calculator evaluates the input and lights the display based on that evaluation. So, does it look to you like the calculator is “choosing”?

    I think you have been misled into anthropomorphizing computers by writers who try to find a way to mechanize people.

    But that aside, what we see from it is options are *possible* in a sense compatible with determinism.

    But it’s not possible for the computer to execute any other move. Neither is it possible for the calculator to display any other number. That’s precisely the point. The very concept of “possibility” makes no sense in a deterministic reality.

  39. Stephen Lawrence

    Dianelos, But the computer can make any of the moves it evaluates meaning can if it evaluates it as the best move. That’s what options are things we can do if we evaluate them as the best. To think otherwise is to make a nonsense out of choice making. So there is no illusion, just a mistake over what options are.,

  40. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen,

    All computer programming (or rather all the “control flow” of computer programming) is based on evaluating bits of data and doing different things depending on the result. Arithmetic sums are usually implemented in hardware, but then these evaluations of data are hardwired. Of course some programs are very complex and can simulate the appearance of choice, but this does not mean that they are really choosing. Similarly it’s rather easy to program a computer to appear to have consciousness, but it does not follow that that computer has consciousness.

    Anthropomorphizing machines is rarely a useful thing to do. And given that computers are made on purpose to work deterministically, to anthropomorphize a computer is almost always misleading. There are as a matter of fact no alternative possibilities open to a digital computer. The only thing that holds is that sometimes we cannot predict what a computer will output which gives us the illusion that there are different possibilities open to it. But if there are no alternative possibilities open to a computer, then it’s nonsense to say that the computer “chooses” (according to the folk meaning of “choice”).

    But there is a way around this problem. Simply connect the digital computer to a random source (say one based on quantum phenomena). Now one has a non-deterministic machine for which alternative possibilities *are* open. Would it now be reasonable to say that this machines “chooses”? Only if one had reason to believe that this machine has free will. Which of course no naturalist believes it has. Surprisingly enough a theist is not thus limited, and given adequate conditions may believe that this machine does have free will and therefore is choosing.

    One way or the other the whole discussion is about making a storm in a cup. Naturalists assume it’s a great deal to show that all our physical observations (including human behavior) would obtain if naturalism is true. But theism does not claim otherwise, for it’s not like the God, the author of nature, would build nature to include un-natural things. Indeed, as I discussed in the other thread, a physical universe in which free will exists is not measurably distinguishable from a universe in which free will does not exist. Similarly a physical universe in which consciousness exists is not measurably distinguishable from a universe in which consciousness does not exist. Therefore physical measurements, or explanations based on physical measurements, are simply irrelevant to the questions at hand.

  41. Lyndon,

    I’m glad to see you walk back the language about “programming” and “algorithms.” Programming in the sense you now present it, where organisms are affected by their pasts, is just a fancy way of re-stating what we have already agreed to agree upon: that human beings live in a deterministic world. That’s not at issue. The question remains, does it naturally follow from this fact that free will is illusory?

    In your attempt to demonstrate that it does, you leave out an important phenomenon, that of consciousness and subjective experience. This tends to make your analysis somewhat unempirical, sort of like describing the physical world in two dimensions, but neglecting to mention depth. Unlike unconscious organisms (or objects), we have the apparent capacity to hold alternatives in our awareness and evaluate their importance, reasonableness, rectitude, and efficacy. Let’s agree that this capacity is difficult to reconcile with causal determinism. But then, so is gravity hard to reconcile with the other three forces. We trust that gravity has a non-”spooky” explanation that we will someday discover. So there is precedent in accepting the truth of empirical phenomenon we cannot explain.

    This is the problem that all Behaviorist accounts of human cognition must grapple with, the problem of epiphenomenalism. If consciousness adds nothing to our ability to reason effectively (and according to hard determinism, it cannot), why do we have it? What was its cause? (And, as I asked in an earlier comment, what is the origin of morality? If we can only do what we do, and our brains are doing all the work anyway at the level of the neurons, why would we ever need the *concept* of there being right and wrong actions, given that this concept could not possibly have an impact on our behavior? What would Occam say? It all has a desperate flavor, like the epicycles of the Ptolemeans.)

    There is nothing intrinsically anti-determinist about making decisions in consciousness. Reason can logically be every bit as valid a cause as history. We don’t know yet how to fully account for the emergence of this new cause, but that shouldn’t alarm us too much. Even the most basic properties of nature are emergent, we now know. Matter is emergent when certain properties of quantum fields align correctly. Life is emergent when the substrate for genetic transmission becomes stable enough, through increasing chemical complexity of matter. Anti-entropy, of all things, is emergent with the advent of life. We are discussing something no more astonishing, surely, than any of these amazing ontological thresholds. There’s no need to try to explain it all away out of fear that we’ll have to use some old superstition like a soul to prop things up.

  42. stephen lawrnce

    Dianelos,

    “But if there are no alternative possibilities open to a computer, then it’s nonsense to say that the computer “chooses” (according to the folk meaning of “choice”).”

    But there are alternative possibilities open to the computer.

    Again these are moves they can make if they evaluate them as the best.

    It’s you who is making a nonsense of choice making.

  43. Chris, your claim seemed to be that throughout these discussions (i.e. all threads associated with Russell’s reviews of the six articles on free will), no one had made a claim that indeterminism was a solution to the free will problem. You used the word caprice, seeming to indicate why it was obvious that it wasn’t a solution. I presume that what you are implying is that if there is a meaningful concept like free will, then it must by necessity be compatible with determinism. Is this a correct interpretation of what you said?

    Though it is true that this specific post concerned Jerry Coyne, and that Strawson is not one of the authors reviewed in the other six posts, the overarching questions is Is Free Will an Illusion? Such a discussion inevitably leads to mention and discussion of the Basic Argument. And it has been addressed throughout these posts. For example, Stephen Lawrence has consistently through multiple threads insisted the Basic Argument is true simply because he has no control of the past. I have tried to demonstrate the argument is wrong because it is rooted in the erroneous Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). My claim is in fact that all determinism is rooted in PSR, which also makes it relevant to Jerry’s following claim in his article in The Chronicle of Higher Education :

    Although we can’t really rerun that tape, this sort of free will [where you could have chosen otherwise] is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.

        Jerry Coyne

    Clearly, Jerry is saying that strictly deterministic laws of physics reign supreme. We can simply call them Equation E for short. This is Jerry’s central claim. And the one that those who reject Russell’s Could/Would distinction (like Stephen) hang their hat on. You yourself use a PSR like argument to dismiss indeterminism as a solution to free will:

    An indetermined system (or an indetermined portion of a partially determined system) lacks both the necessary reasons and causes that would make free will anything but a caprice.

        Chris Schoen

    NOTE: My bolding.

    Hence, indeterminism is simply out of the question (and pointless to discuss). I repeat your words: it’s anything but a caprice. So what does caprice mean? It means something that is sudden and unpredictable, and hence supposedly unaccountable. To demonstrate the error of this thinking, I proposed thinking about 3 types of random generators: a coin, a dice and a roulette. All three are indeterminate systems. It doesn’t matter here whether “indeterminate” means fundamentally random, or just a lack of knowledge to make absolutely certain predictions.

    The likelihood that we will get a result of 1 (which we could think of as inaction or “don’t save the child”; or vice versa action or “save the child” ) is different for each of these three random generators: 1/2, 1/6 and 1/37. As can be seen, Person A and Person B could be distinguishable by two aspects:

    -Their default perspective
    -Their random generator

    The default perspective means do they ask themselves “Should I save the child”? Or do they ask themselves “Should I NOT save the child”? Where does their inquiry begin. The type of their random generator will then answer NO or YES, depending on if the generator produces a 1 or some other number ( v=1 => NO; v >1 = YES).

    Assume Person A has the default perspective DON’T ACT (“I should not save the child”) and a random generator of type COIN. The likelihood they will save the child is 1:2. Person B has the default perspective ACT (“Save the child”) and a random generator of type ROULETTE. The likelihood they will save the child is 37:1.

    My question to you, Chris, is the following: Who is more capricious, Person A or Person B?

    A problem with the random generator analogy above arises when you imagine it to be a process external to you. Call it the externalization fallacy. This is a fallacy many people seem to make, leading to the conclusion that indeterminism somehow means you’re unlucky. But if people are partially inherently indeterministic, then we CANNOT think of the process as being extrinsic to you. You are the more or less indeterminate process. You are the thing that brings the unluck, the result of the coin or the roulette.

    The discussion about free will and how and to what extent we are causally determined is dead serious. Our answer to these questions have profound political and social impact. Disregarding the possibility, nature and implications of indeterminism by saying that indeterminism is “ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics” (as Jerry does from the outset), and forcing the discussion into deterministic compatibilism alone, is tantamount to saying that black is aloud to castle and white is not. This is not an academic pearl game. Russell may be the poster who sets the topic and tone of what is being discussed. But that does not preclude someone from pointing out that indeterminism is being given too short shrift in a discussion where it belongs: Is free will an Illusion?

    I did not say indeterminism is irrelevant. What I said was something along the lines that what’s inside the black box, the you (the stochastic process that decides whether the child gets saved), is somewhat irrelevant. With other words, whether stochastic means not enough information or fundamentally random is irrelevant. But it does matter whether the process is stochastic or not. Or is it really all up to Equation E? All this reference to Equation E seems to me like deus ex machina, which leads to these crazy conclusions about the nature of being in the world.

    Your brain and body, the vehicles that make “choices,” are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment. Your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another. These molecules must obey the laws of physics, so the outputs of our brain—our “choices”—are dictated by those laws.

        Jerry Coyne

    Yikes. The infamous Equation E revealed only to the enlightened. The Causa Sui of a static timeless universe. A place where absurd puppets like myself dance amidst the “illusions” of perfect eternal forms cast against the cave wall. I don’t see how you can’t see that Jerry’s arguments are just a versions of the more exhaustive Basic Argument. And even more profoundly: a rational Platonic absurdity.

    Oh vey. Poor mortal Andreas who in his limitations fails to comprehend Equation E that rules his life supreme. Were he only as enlightened as Jerry Coyne or Sam Harris. But, alas he is lost in the delusions of a biochemical fog…

  44. Sorry, mixed up my notations there. The odds of that they try to save the child are, of course, as follows:

    Person A – 1:1
    Person B – 36:1 (or with American roulette 37:1)

  45. stephen lawrnce

    Andreas,

    “Though it is true that this specific post concerned Jerry Coyne, and that Strawson is not one of the authors reviewed in the other six posts, the overarching questions is Is Free Will an Illusion? ”

    This is only if it makes sense to call free will an illusion?

    I think it’s very unhelpful because people imagine the experience of choosing is supposedly an illusion.

    That’s why the chess computer example is good. it does evaluate options, it does work out which is best, it does move as a result of the evaluation.

    Choosing isn’t illusory.

    It’s the belief that being able to select a different option in the actual situation, somehow gains us something, that is a mistake.

  46. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen,

    “But there are alternative possibilities open to the computer.”

    We have already discussed this. Since given a particular input, either a calculator or a chess playing computer will produce one particular result, there are no alternative possibilities open. All computing machines, whether a calculator or a chess playing computer evaluate data and act differently depending on that evaluation – so this matter is irrelevant to the question at hand.

    Therefore, given that you still insist that there are alternative possibilities open to the chess playing computer while accepting that there are no alternative possibilities open to the calculator – you are not only playing around with the meaning of “possibility”, but doing so in an incoherent way. And apparently you need to play around the meaning of “possibility” in order to justify your playing around with the meaning of “choice”. And you need the latter in order to justify your playing around with the meaning of “free will”. I for one am no interested in word jugglery. By shifting the meaning of worlds one can prove anything.

    Now I know you are following Dennett in this, and, as I described in the other thread, I think I can understand Dennett’s rationale. But surely nobody expects non-naturalists to be impressed by word games?

  47. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Andreas,

    You quote Jerry Coyne as saying “Although we can’t really rerun that tape, this sort of free will [where you could have chosen otherwise] is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.

    The laws of physics for the last 100 years simply and decisively allow for a photon to pass through a different slit (if it were possible to rerun the tape). And if as simple a physical system as a single photon has this capability, surely as complex a system as the human brain has it too. So Jerry Coyne doesn’t know what he is speaking about.

    Which is ok. He is biologists arguing for a philosophical matter based on his misunderstanding of physics. What I find remarkable is that other compatibilists do not correct him.

  48. stephen lawrnce

    Dianelos

    ” Since given a particular input, either a calculator or a chess playing computer will produce one particular result, there are no alternative possibilities open.”

    Firstly, you believe that calculators and chess computers are made of quantum particles that behave indeterministically. So to remain consistent you should affirm that there are alternative possibilities open for them.

    Secondly, normally, alternative possibilities open is compatible with determinism because it means can still select that option. To understand what that means we need to look at cases in which we say or think that.

    “All computing machines, whether a calculator or a chess playing computer evaluate data and act differently depending on that evaluation – so this matter is irrelevant to the question at hand. ”

    In order to make a choice one must act depending upon the evaluation. If you didn’t that would not be a chosen action.

    Computers evaluate possible moves, moves they can make in the future. Calculators do nothing of the sort.

    “Therefore, given that you still insist that there are alternative possibilities open to the chess playing computer while accepting that there are no alternative possibilities open to the calculator – you are not only playing around with the meaning of “possibility”, but doing so in an incoherent way.”

    Not true as explained.

    ” And apparently you need to play around the meaning of “possibility” in order to justify your playing around with the meaning of “choice”.”

    Not true, people report choice to be a weighing up of the pros and cons. Obvioulsy the outome depends upon the weighing up process and given the process no other choice could be made.

    It’s you who play around with the meaning of choice and turn it into useless nonsense.

    ” And you need the latter in order to justify your playing around with the meaning of “free will”.”

    I’m not playing around with the meaning of free will, I agree we don’t heve free will as commonly understood.

    But what you are saying about choice is nonsense.

  49. It seems to me that the issue here touches on both ethical and epistemic responsibility. People like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris make very far reaching assumptions about what’s possible to know and the ease with which we can determine what’s true and false, right and wrong. I’ve outlined a thought experiment that I think illustrates the problem: Alien Responsibility. If you find it interesting feel free to retweet the experiment. :smile:

  50. @Andreas

    Is this a correct interpretation of what you said?

    Yes.

    Such a discussion inevitably leads to mention and discussion of the Basic Argument.

    Unfortunately.

    My question to you, Chris, is the following: Who is more capricious, Person A or Person B?

    They are equally capricious, since both are using a random process to make their decision for them. The odds (coin versus roulette) don’t matter much, since neither random generator has any connection or alignment to a reasoned value (the child should be saved, or not.)

    You cannot have free will or morality without reason, and you cannot have reason without some ability to construe the world meaningfully, which is to say deterministically. If there is no regularity about what we know about the world, reason will have nothing to adhere to.

    If indeterminacy does plays a role (as I imagine it must), it is in the category of noise or luck. We just can’t include it in our explications of moral reasoning and accountability.

    I have my doubts that the “you” that makes decisions is a “stochastic process.” But even if it were, I don’t have the foggiest idea of how an indeterminate set of processes can lead to meaningful moral decisions. Ruling this out doesn’t seem any more unfair to me than ruling out the gods of Olympus: it just doesn’t obtain.

  51. are we free to choose to be determined by others, choose to be not free, as Sartre says, ‘Man is condemned to be free’.

  52. It seems to me – and correct me if I’m wrong – that few in this discussion have worked directly on externalizing mental processes. That is to say, to get “inanimate” materials to behave in an animated way. The chess-analogy that has been discussed is what in AI is called the rule-based approach. It has been extensively tried. And to date it seems like a dead end.

    The problem arises in that our rules have to be either:

    A) Numerous and extensive
    B) General and exhaustive

    If (A) is the solution, imagine the number of rules we would need to model anything approaching human behavior. Chess is a very contained and formal environment where (A) works because the number of rules fit neatly on a not too long Wikipedia entry. The rules “programmed” into a human system would fill…well, who knows, but I would guess the computing power of the entire Internet wouldn’t be quite enough.

    Solution (B) has another problem. All the particular rules contained in (A) still have to be extracted from a very few rules defined by (B). Ultimately all decisions need a ruling (a determination). So, if (A) is the incorrect strategy, there’s no magic way of to get around (B). So the question becomes the following: what is this general rule (or small set of rules) that is (or are) so powerful?

    To not be too ambitious, lets’s assume (B) is some algorithm rather than a single statement. That is (B) is a list of rules applied step-by-step to produce an outcome. What determinists are saying is that these rules are strict, predictable and produce one and only one possible outcome. What indeterminists are saying is that these rules are probabilistic, somewhat unpredictable and produce several potential outcomes. Even if indeterminism is also an algorithm made from a list of well defined rules, it begins to deviate from the ruled-based approach. It becomes what is called a heuristic strategy. Roughly speaking, the system makes educated guesses.

    The guessing is predicated on the idea that any system within the Universe cannot contain and know everything about the Universe (note that Leibniz seems to have tried to solve this problem with his strange so called monads). There are inherent uncertainties. The best we can do is guess, then evaluate our guessing based on the result in order to improve future guesses. This is what educated guessing is. Can we be sure that the sun will rise tomorrow? No, but it’s a pretty safe bet to make. Making preparations for a sunless life currently seems like a complete knuckleheaded waste of time.

    When our guessing becomes spot on, it ceases to be a guess. But for this to happen, we must be absolutely, completely and unequivocally certain about the truth. Is this possible? Or does whatever we claim to know about reality always have a minute, albeit actual possibility of being incorrect? Who knows, right? Well, that’s the problem. We simply have to assume we are inherently fallible (i.e. that it is possible that we are mistaken) since we cannot be absolutely sure we are NOT infallible. To be certain we would have to be God (or the Universe as such).

    Darwin came up with a pretty ingenious and simple algorithm for “bootstrapping” better and better guessing: variability and natural selection. Determinists make a big point of claiming variability in evolution is not random. But that is a big leap to make (and I would guess an uncritical examination of what indeterminists mean by randomness). What’s certain is that evolution is replete with epistemic uncertainties. AI strategies that except these basic uncertainties and employ variability and “natural” selection seem promising. Such evolutionary algorithms try to figure out the rules through a heuristic process. A problem remains that these processes still require desired outcomes and means to evaluate if the actual outcomes match what was desired. Evolution didn’t just bootstrap the rules. It bootstrapped the desires these rules are measured against.

    The truth is no one knows how awareness arises much less consciousness, but determinists have made the bold claim that it’s just a matter of time until we are no longer a mysterious black box. I too think AI is achievable and not too distant. But I suspect much of what we achieve will remain a mystery for a long time even to the engineers that achieved it. We will have a successful Turing Test and yet grapple with why it was successful. The sibot (the “artificial” intelligence) will probably be as puzzled as us. There is no contradiction here. You don’t have to abstractly understand something in its entirety bottom-to-top to practically create and leverage something. People used fire effectively for at least 1.9 million years before phlogistion was hypothesized (and then later rejected).

    Several here keep saying that to be meaningful, free will has to be compatible with determinism. I suppose it’s because only reasonable beings can be held to account. Insane people don’t go on trial. I think, however, that reasonable and rational are improperly considered strictly equivalent. Successful humans are great because they are good (but not infallible) guessers. We haven’t even started talking about risk management, which to me seems highly relevant to moral accountability. When humans make guesses they factor in calculations about risk. The higher the potential reward, the more willing people are to act (or suppress action). Risk is again associated with uncertainties, since if there were no uncertainties, there would be no risk.

    You can’t get around this uncomfortable word uncertainty and it’s more ancient related “mysterious”. If uncertainty necessarily means we have no free will, then free will begone! But it’s NOT absurd deterministic notions that potentially eliminate free will. It is inherent uncertainties (at all layers of realty) that eliminate it. If there is such a thing as free will, then it must by necessity be compatible with indeterminism since we are by the mere fact of not being God (or the Universe as such) fallible.

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