On Sam Harris on free will

Over on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, I’ve written a long response to the new book, Free Will, by Sam Harris. I say “response” rather than “review”, because much of it discusses my own reflections on fate, free will, determinism, and the long cultural conversation that we’ve been having about these things in the West, going back for thousands of years.

My problem with the Sam Harris book is not so much that I disagree with his conclusions – although I do disagree with some of them – so much that I disagree with the way he approaches the problem. First, he uses a rather idiosyncratic definition of free will that doesn’t have much to do with definitions that have been used by philosophers or with whatever intuitive idea of free will the folk might have (if, indeed, they even have a unified idea of it – I suspect that the folk talk past each other on this to a large extent). Thus, much of the book has an air of attacking a straw man.

Second, and worse, Harris responds to compatibilists by accusing them of changing the subject (notwithstanding that attempts to work out what it might be for actions to be “up to us”, including the plausibility of compatibilist accounts, have been part of the conversation at least since Hellenistic times) and of writing like theologians (whatever that actually means, it is not likely to be true of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, A.J. Ayer, Daniel Dennett, or other leading compatibilists). There’s a certain insouciance, at best, about all this.

As for whether “we have free will”, I remain of the opinion that libertarian views of free will are ultimately unintelligible – this seems to me the case with agent causation views, and I doubt that event causation views of libertarian free will, such as Robert Kane’s, can fare any better. Indeed, I’d argue that they eventually rely covertly on agent causation intuitions to give themselves any plausibility. About the best libertarians can do is claim, rather lamely, that all ideas of causation are mysterious when pushed far enough.

I agree with Sam Harris on the non-existence of libertarian free will – if the idea even makes sense – though Harris shows no sign of having read at all deeply in the literature. I also think that compatibilists have enough problems to make free will, at best, a matter of judgment and degree. But the naked claim, “You do not have free will,” uttered to ordinary people, still seems to me more false than true. More research is needed on what this claim actually conveys to people (and it may convey different things to people from different social classes, educational backgrounds, parts of the world, etc. (experimental philosophers take note)), but it looks to me that what is likely to be at stake for many people is not so much the truth or falsity of something like agent causation but the truth or falsity of some kind of fatalism. Saying “You do not have free will,” is likely to convey, to many people, in many circumstances, the false (and perhaps demoralising) message that some kind of fatalism is the truth of it.

I’m painfully aware of a similar issue in metaethics. I deny that there are objective moral truths of the form, “X-ing is morally wrong.” That’s because I take a particular view as to what this conveys, and I consider what it conveys to be false. On the other hand, I’d want to explain myself very carefully before saying to the folk, “Torturing babies for fun is not morally wrong.” That can all too easily convey the false message that torturing babies for fun is not, in my evaluation, bad. And when I say bad, I don’t mean as in, “That was baaaad, dude!”

Leave a comment ?

171 Comments.

  1. Caveat: yet to read Harris’ book or your detailed reply on ABC Religion & Ethics. But it sounds a lot like Harris is up to his old tricks: tackling complex philosophical issues without doing his homework or really engaging with the complexity; then offering intuitively appealing accounts thinly backed by science that side-step the complexity under the guise of cutting the Gordian knot.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t blame Harris. I blame us: philosophers. These are big issues and philosophers have struggled to engage the public with books tackling them. Harris, to his credit, is engaging – it’s just that he hasn’t done his homework. The solution is not less books by Harris, but more books by the rest of us.

  2. @Russell Blackford
    Did it ever occur to you that free will is unintelligible? This means that we can comprehend free will, but we can’t define it or explicate it. Thus, it is not the explanations of free will that are unintelligible. Rather the explanations of free will are irrational because there is no evidence supporting the explanations. The only theory about free will that is supported by the evidence is that it is a mystery.

  3. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Russell:

    I remain of the opinion that libertarian views of free will are ultimately unintelligible

    Sure they are, if you think like a naturalist. After all, on naturalism reality is ultimately of a mechanical nature and therefore there are either no uncaused causes or else they are purely random. In a naturalistic mindframe one cannot conceive of anything else.

    But on theism reality is ultimately of a personal nature, and personal will can be a purposeful uncaused cause. Which is exactly how it feels like in our everyday life. Our character traits and environment determine the probabilities of our choices, but our choices themselves are determined by our personal will.

  4. Dianelos: But on theism reality is ultimately of a personal nature, and personal will can be a purposeful uncaused cause. Which is exactly how it feels like in our everyday life. Our character traits and environment determine the probabilities of our choices, but our choices themselves are determined by our personal will.

    This reminds me of a statement by Spinoza to the effect that our impression of ‘free will’ arises from our awareness of our thoughts and emotions, combined with our unawareness of their causes. Hence, we think of our thoughts and emotions as being self-caused (i.e., ‘free’) since we can’t see any source for them through introspection.

  5. Russell, a few words about your review :
    “And I find it difficult even to make sense of consciously choosing my next thought. How is that supposed to work?”
    This is precisely what Sam Harris is arguing to point to the impossibility of (conscious) free-will.
    I would disagree with your assertion that “folk” free-will is ill-defined.
    It is quite clear: our conscious self is responsible for our actions. We are free agents, free to act otherwise (to have tea or coffee, to be good or evil). The choices we make depend on our own conscious will. That we have freedom of conscious will. Therefore, God can judge us and send us to hell, paradise, whatever, or our karmic future is up to us, etc. Libertarian free-will is crucial to most if not all religious worldviews. And a vast majority of human beings hold religious worldviews.
    So I don’t think the debate should be about the definition of “folk” free-will. Most people don’t think deeply about these issues. As we all did when we thought the earth was flat, we go with our perception of things. With the zeitgeist. With what is generally accepted, felt, and assumed. With what seems so obvious that no further questioning is required: we are free, conscious, morally responsible agents.
    For Sam Harris (although he might not put it this way): we are deluded automatons. Likewise for Gazzaniga and others.
    So to me, the issue of free-will boils down to this: are we or are we not deluded automatons. If not, how does “folk” free-will work?

  6. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Asur:

    we think of our thoughts and emotions as being self-caused (i.e., ‘free’) since we can’t see any source for them through introspection.

    But I can see the source of my thoughts and emotions, namely my participating in creation. It is *I* experiencing *this life* which is the source of my thoughts and emotions.

    Look, the sentence “I chose this” is one of the most common expressions there are, and even a 10-year old understands perfectly well what it means. There is no mystery whatsoever in free will. The mystery appears only when people try to make sense of free will within a naturalistic view of reality. I mean, see how Russell puts it: “I find it difficult even to make sense of consciously choosing my next thought. How is that supposed to work?” See? He is trying to find out how free will *works*. He is interested in the *mechanism* which produces free will. Which is a perfectly fine question to ask if you are a naturalist. But if you are a theist the same question makes no sense, for on theism reality is ultimately *not* mechanical, but personal. Here all of reality is contingent on free will. Indeed, on theism the foundation of all reality is the purposeful and creative will of God. (For example, on theism the mechanical order present in physical phenomena which the relevant sciences study is caused by the will of God.)

    Now naturalists imagine that the physical sciences have produced evidence that free will cannot or else does not exist. Indeed many think that free will contradicts physical law. But I think they are imagining things, as evidenced by the fact that when one asks them to point out exactly what physical law is violated by free will they abstain from answering. There is in fact no contradiction whatsoever. To put it in modal terms: there exists a possible world which comports with all the premisses of classical theism in which all physical phenomena are exactly as they are in ours.

  7. Steve, how you can say that that is “quite clear”? On the contrary, this idea that we can consciously choose our thoughts (an idea that strikes me as obviously unintelligible) does not turn up at all in the research on folk beliefs that I have read. Nor had I ever even heard such a definition of free will (talking to my students, talking to people generally, or reading the philosophical literature), or even heard of such a bizarre idea at all, until I read the Harris book. Maybe someone else has said it somewhere – I’d be interested in some examples – but it’s at best a very marginal idea in our history and culture. Contrast ideas of fatalism, which you’ll find all through contemporary popular culture, even if they’re being contested.

    Nor does the research bear out any of the other things that you say about connections with eschatology, etc. Now, that’s not to deny that various theologians have made these connections (though I’m not sure that many or any did before St. Augustine), or to deny that ideas of free will get deployed in theodical debates – of course they do. But to say that these theological connections are the folk view goes far beyond either the history of the debate (you won’t find these connections in Aristotle, or Epicurus, or the Stoics, for example) or the current research on how the folk seem to conceive of free will.

  8. I think a lot of what Harris has to say stems from personal experience and introspection, from his own study and practice of Buddhism and meditation. Where a lot of time is spent observing one’s own mental processes, how one’s thoughts emerge, etc. An Eastern approach, more practical and introspective than purely intellectual and discursive.
    Perhaps because of my own limitations, I fail to grasp the subtleties and complexities of this debate, or at least, of its formulations.
    It seems to me that most everyone I have ever met assumes that he/she is (and others are) the conscious agent of most decisions, deliberations, choices, actions, etc. That he/she has the feeling of, considers him or herself as, being a conscious, free, responsible willer. This is what I mean, perhaps erroneously, by “folk free-will”.
    This is what ordinary people are led to believe, because this is how it “feels”.
    This is what most religions (unsurprisingly) take for granted as well.
    The questions, to my mind, is not that convoluted. As Gazzaniga would say: who’s in charge?
    His answer is: unconscious processes. Therefore, conscious free-will is an illusion.
    Daniel Wegner (if you haven’t read “The Illusion of Conscious Will”, you are missing out on something) argues that conscious will is also an illusion.
    Theirs are not philosophical statements. They stem from experimental data. Ultimately, I believe the answer to this crucial, age-old question will come out not of reasoning or introspection, but out of a lab.

  9. I agree that the normal feeling of free will is that my thoughts cause my actions, but that’s only problematic if you think that non-ultimate causes aren’t real causes. And if you think that, you have to believe not just that it’s wrong to say “my decision made me lose money.” You also have to think a statement like “a meteor drove the dinosaurs extinct” is wrong, because only ultimate causes count. So our feeling that we cause things is only an illusion in the sense that it’s an illusion to see predation as causing evolutionary change, or think that supply and demand drive price changes.

    Nobody is going to assent to this, because we use the notion of local causes all the time to explain things. Thinking about local causes is in fact extremely useful and essential to the vast, vast majority of science. And that’s why our feeling that we cause things is in fact essentially sensible.

  10. Stephen Lawrnce

    I don’t think free will always refers to the same thing but when folk are blaming, feeling guilty praising etc, they believe the justification is could have done otherwise in the circumstances.

    So this is “folk free will” in general use regarding moral responsibility.

    This is a mistake with consequences, which is why it matters and why Sam Harris is doing a good job of pointing this out.

    Here is a useful example of the problem, quoting Russell:

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

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

    Well, plenty more, of course. Assuming determinism, as we are, the answer is slightly different causal antecedents stretching back to the big bang to produce the different want.

    Is folk free will compatible with that?

    As a matter of fact, no it isn’t.

    Stephen

  11. “So our feeling that we cause things is only an illusion in the sense that it’s an illusion to see predation as causing evolutionary change, or think that supply and demand drive price changes.”
    This is not what Wegner is arguing. He is not overly concerned with the usual philosophical arguments, with determinism or the conundrum of causality and ultimate causes.
    Based on a slew of experiments, he is questioning the fact that we consciously will our actions. “Our actions happen to us… conscious will is an illusion that serves as a guide to understanding ourselves and to developing a sense of responsibility and morality”.
    It seems to me that this debate needs to shift from the usual, age-old, ultimately inconclusive philosophical back and forth arguments, to something quite different. Science has shifted its stance over the past 20 years, and scientists worldwide are now feverishly studying consciousness and free-will.
    That anyone could say that Fried’s experiments (among others) that point to unconscious decision-making at the neural level (and thus validate Wegner’s works through a different approach) are ultimately of little consequence is beyond me. Perhaps it’s just me, but reading about Libet’s experiments many years ago shook me up far more than any philosopher’s work, or more recently, Sam Harris’ book or lecture.
    Scientists are now producing data at an increasing pace, which brings me to believe we are on the cusp of a major revolution. A tsunami that will “mootify” thousands of years of endless debate.

  12. swallerstein (amos)

    The fact that conscious free-will is sometimes an illusion does not mean that it is always an illusion.

    There are a lot of studies which show that at times, especially in certain simple decisions (Libet experiments), conscious choice is an illusion.

    However, in more complex decision making processes we consciously deliberate, reflect upon and edit our decisions. The conscious result of a long process of deliberation does seem to motivate behavior.

    Does that mean that in even conscious rational choices there is no unconscious aspect to our choice? No, it does not, but it does mean that conscious rational decision-making is at times a reality.

  13. “The conscious result of a long process of deliberation does seem to motivate behavior.” “Does seem to” is a rather weak stance. The earth did seem flat, and it does seem that wee consciously decide when and how to lift our finger. So far, both have been shown to be incorrect assumptions.
    We cannot satisfy ourselves with “how it feels” or “what seems to be”. Nor can or should we rely on our intuitions to establish the truth of the matter.

  14. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    Unless your experiments can show (and so far they have not shown) that our rational conscious choices cannot at times motivate our behavior, then it seems wiser to go with what we experience.

    Just because at times our experience of choosing is an illusion, there seems no reason to believe that our experience of choosing is always an illusion.

    If I use the verb “seems” a lot, it just may be that I’m a bit less sure of myself and dogmatic than you are.

  15. [...] a vast majority of human beings hold religious worldviews.

        Steve1

    And what perfect world view do you hold that makes you privy to understanding the true nature of causality? And in such a definitive way as to dismiss other world views?

  16. Dianelos Georgoudis

    swallerstein (amos):

    There are a lot of studies which show that at times, especially in certain simple decisions (Libet experiments), conscious choice is an illusion.

    I think that naturalists misinterpret the results of Libet-like experiments. When asked to make a random choice we must use our brain as a random generator, a task for which our brain is not well adapted, and for which task it needs a long time. It is kind of interesting, but also entirely irrelevant, that a machine scanning our brain can detect which way the mental toss of a coin will go before we ourselves become aware of that result. In other words the free choice here is to mentally toss the coin; the free choice is *not* to look at what that mental toss produced.

    Frankly, from where I stand it looks like naturalists clutch at straws trying very hard to convince themselves that there is scientific evidence that free will does not exist. The interesting philosophical question here is to consider what kind of evidence would really show that free will does not exist.

  17. @Andreas, you misunderstand my point. I have no understanding of what the true nature of causality is, no real desire to discuss it, nor do I dismiss any (non violent) worldview. All I am saying is that there is too much time spent arguing about ordinary, common conceptions of free will. I don’t pretend to know, don’t identify with an ideology or a camp. If it turns out we have an immaterial soul, fine. If we are deluded material automatons, fine. I’m interested in the truth of the matter. And it puzzles me that recent advances in experimental sciences seem not to have a stronger impact on the old philosophical house. Or at least, arent mobilizing it more fully, a la Metzinger. But again, perhaps it’s a misapprehension on my part.

  18. In ordinary language, the phrase ‘free will’ seems to serve some small useful purpose in distinguishing acts done ‘at gunpoint’ from those that are done in better accord with an agent’s wishes (‘of his own free will’). This difference would probably have some bearing in the minds of most when it comes to determining what we would want to be done concerning a person who has committed an act that society wishes to deter. All this is quite consistent with determinism, moral error theory or a purely consequentialist ‘ethic’.

    The phrase can be done without of course. And I’m inclined to think the onus is on the man who asserts – despite the fact that the term is understood in wildly differing ways (some of which really are patently nonsensical) – that we are *not* better off without it to show us why.

    In this regard I do wonder if the claim “free will does not exist” and its contradictory may in fact both be deeply unhelpful things to say. (Personally I’m more inclined to say the former but theres no point arguing with non-naturalists about it). *

    As for Sam Harris, doubtless a scientifically-informed philosopher or a more philosophically-informed scientist would do a better job of writing a book on freewill or, indeed, morality than he would. But then you’d have a hard job selling many copies if you weren’t world famous for doing the rather less difficult task of rubbishing religion. The question is, I suppose, whether the book does more good by bringing the question of freewill to wider attention than it does by bringing a lack of philosophical nuance to this question to an audience who will doubtless have no sympathy for ‘religious’ notions of freewill anyway but little philosophical training. (Would any philosopher bother with a book by Sam Harris if it weren’t for the fact it were influential?)

    [*edit: Or rather, I mean there’s no point in a naturalist arguing about freewill with a non-naturalist except in so far as one or the other can accept the other’s premises for the sake of argument – otherwise you will have to have an argument about a whole worldview.]

  19. I am not surprised that professional philosophers should be both dismissive and perhaps slightly jealous, and not take it lightly when Harris dismisses much of their work as “changing the subject”. This echoes “sophisticated theologians” rubbishing Harris or Dawkins for their “lack of theological depth”.
    Well, kindly hear what an “ordinary people who is not philosopher or theologian”, to quote Russel, has to say. Although this “ordinary” guy has some passion for this and other subjects.
    Anyone who says “we have free-will”, and doesn’t mean by that, that something in us can, through a conscious effort, overcome our genetic, environmental, educational, causal, whatever determinisms, meaning that if the universe was rewound to the moment of our conception, nothing would unfold any differently for us (save perhaps random events independent of our own will), is “changing the subject”, by changing the essence of what is meant by “free will”.
    The folk is not interested in whether there are many “possibles” open to us, without any external force constraining us, let’s call that an “open field of possibilities”.
    The folk is interested in whether we, through our mental deliberations, our choices, our actions, can truly chose one or the other fork on the road, affect or change in any, unpredicted way, the outcome of our lives. Who we shall become, and what the world will become.
    Or whether this is just an illusion. Either because of causal determinism or because our conscious self has no true causal efficacy. It’s just (as Gazzaniga says) an “intepreter”. I would call that a “coherence engine”. A story teller of a life wholly determined by unconscious neural processes.
    This is what the “folk” is interested in. And this is why Harris is damn right to stay on target (whether one agrees or not with his own developments). And this is also why he has sold so many books.

  20. Does a meta-grobulator have free will?

    That of course depends on what free will and a meta-grobulator are defined to be..and in what conecptual universe they exist.

    I rest my case.

    Since people are arguing from different perspectives with different concepts about what they, free will and the universe actually ARE, its a senseless debate.

    Could we detect an act of free will? No. at some other level it could always be held to be potentially predetermined.

    What matters, as always, is whether we choose a model in which we define free will to exist, or choose one that denies its existence. Knowing we don’t have a clue whether either of them are real, complete, or accurate,

    Even if that choice is pre-determined :-)

  21. Stephen Lawrnce

    Leo,

    What it means if we don’t have libertarian free will, is that we don’t deserve blame, credit, etc etc.

    So of course it makes a difference.

    It’s important to understand that choices are a lottery in a very important sense, as they depend upon our genetics and past experiences.

  22. Stephen Lawrnce

    Joseph,

    “I agree that the normal feeling of free will is that my thoughts cause my actions, but that’s only problematic if you think that non-ultimate causes aren’t real causes. And if you think that, you have to believe not just that it’s wrong to say “my decision made me lose money.” You also have to think a statement like “a meteor drove the dinosaurs extinct” is wrong, because only ultimate causes count. So our feeling that we cause things is only an illusion in the sense that it’s an illusion to see predation as causing evolutionary change, or think that supply and demand drive price changes.”

    I agree Joseph but what you miss is the bit that matters.

    What almost everybody believes is that people deserve what happens to them as a result of their choices.

    That rests on the invention of ultimate causes, rather than causes merely being effects of their causes.

    So the picture changes significantly when we drop that and get real about human choices.

  23. Hi Steve1,

    I’m always interested to hear what an “ordinary people” has to say.

    I’m glad the folk have found such an able leader who is able to tell us with certitude what ‘the folk is interested in’.

    This does save us the trouble of consulting them.

    The next time I speak to a professional philosopher I will suggest they advise those conducting research on folk beliefs that you have refuted their findings.

    Thank you for settling all matters of doubt.

  24. Oh boy! Our entire society is built on the assumption of (libertarian) free-will, and we need to argue about it. Poor Itzhak Fried who seemed so shaken by his finding that predictive neural firings and patterns precede conscious will and action… and that therefore, conscious (free) will might very well be an illusion.
    If this were such a commonly held view, I would have to tell him, with some embarrassment: poor Dr Fried (and Dr Libet before him), where have you been educated?!
    May Harvard or another deep-pocketed university run a poll on this. Gazillions are spent daily on polls on politics and everything else under the sun. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done for free-will.
    Of course people believe we have free-will, because most people go with what they feel, with their intuitions, with what seems to be. They don’t speculate of philosophize about this. And what we all feel (save some brain pathology), is that we have (libertarian) free-will.
    FYI: 40 to 50% or people in the US think the earth is 10.000 years old. And you think they have time to ponder determinism and free-will? This is a free country, and people are free, that’s what they’ll tell you.
    Illusion of conscious will?! Whay the heck are ya’ talkin’ about!
    Get real, my philosopher friend.

  25. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    Unless you’re a mind reader, it’s unlikely that you know “what we all feel”.

    I for one do not always “feel” that I have libertarian free will. Sometimes I think that I do make conscious choices. At other times it seems (your favorite verb “to seem”) that my decisions are not chosen by my conscious self and that my conscious self just ratifies or justifies what has already been decided, by genes, unconscious habits, my social class, my upbringing, unconscious inner demons, what I ate for lunch, the stars…..

  26. “I for one do not always “feel” that I have libertarian free will”.
    Good for you. The simple fact that you are contributing to this blog would indicate that you have some interest in the matter, and therefore, that you have read about and reflect upon it (and upon yourself).
    However, if you are telling me that your general impression/perception is that you are a deluded automaton, I will say: wow! Either you need to see a neurologist or you have developed some deeper insight.
    I hope my tone doesn’t offend you. I like lively debates.
    I really think some philosophers are out of touch with the view of the common man (such as myself) on this one. Harvard, Gallup, help them see the light!
    Oh, I forgot to mention. In many places around my country, free-will is considered a “God-given gift to man”. A cornerstone of the Christian faith. And we (the US) are a nation of believers (what is it, over 80%?).
    Here, (not Dennett’s) free-will is absolutely central to the Christian faith. And if I were you, I wouldn’t mess with God…

  27. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    Actually, experimental philosophers are studying folk psychology.

    Here’s a link to Joshua Knobe, a foremost experimental philosopher who has written on the subject. I’m sure that Google will provide you with more info on the work of people like Knobe.

    P.S. A Gallup poll cannot tell us what ordinary people think about determinism/free will because as Knobe and others show, ordinary people do not have entirely coherent or consistent views on the matter.

  28. Thanks for the pointer.
    I’ve read the paper on “Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions”
    But it does not address the point I was making. It addresses people’s intuitions about of free-will/moral responsibility when they are specifically told to reflect on situations in an explicitly deterministic/indeterministic universe.
    What I specifically wrote is that most people do not ask themselves these types of questions. They don’t ponder determinism or indeterminism. They intuitively attribute free-will to themselves and others. Ascribing freedom of conscious will to oneself and to others, I would argue, is the default position. Because it is how it feels. It is what we perceive. So unless we are proven wrong or primed to question this assumption, we go with it.
    This is what a good Gallup poll would tell you, I’ll bet my milky-way bar on it.

  29. I love the way that Steve and Stephen are making dogmatic statements from their armchairs about what ordinary people supposedly think.

    Fow what it’s worth, like Amos, I have never had this feeling of ultimate freedom, anterior to all the things that shaped my values, understanding of the world, etc., as they are. I can’t even imagine what such a feeling would be like.

    I don’t see how we could possibly infer such an ultimate self-forming power from our introspective experience of decision making. Nor has anyone in ordinary life ever claimed to me that she thinks she has this weird power. (Though it’s true that some philosophers and theologians – such as Danielos – claim we have something like this power.)

    More importantly, there is, as Amos says, a considerable body of research by now on what ordinary people think about free will … and although it does not all point the same way, it certainly doesn’t confirm that ordinary people have any such feeling. Yes, there is Knobe (and his colleagues), Nahmias and his colleagues, and various others. On one strightforward interpretation of the research, what ordinary people actually care about is not being coerced or pressured. This is what they actually seem to say. Perhaps, before we get to that, they care about not being bypassed fatalistically (I think Nahmias is convincing on this, and study of history and culture certainly seems to confirm its importance).

    As for this idea that we can not only make conscious choices about whether or not to, say, save a baby … but can even make conscious choices about what our next thought will be … well, I have never heard anyone make such a bizarre claim until I read the Harris book, where he claims that this is what people think (with no evidence provided – he seems totally unfamiliar with the experimental philosophy literature, for example).

    You won’t find such a claim in the published research; you won’t find it in the philosophical literature on the subject (agent causal theorists and other libertarians do not make such claims, and hard determinists/incompatibilists like Derk Pereboom don’t even mention such claims as being what they must refute); and nor do you see this as a theme in myth, literary narrative, or popular culture. On the contrary, the more usual theme is about how our thoughts come to us out of nowhere, as it were – in dreams, hunches, in what “feels right”, or in inspiration from the gods. It’s well known that our actual thoughts “come to us” rather than being chosen by us in some anterior conscious way.

    In some cases, our feelings as to what we should do about, say, shifting interstate, or taking a new job, may only come to us after a lot of conscious deliberation has happened, but that’s a different issue. The idea that we can deliberate about what words we should think (and do we first deliberate about what those those deliberations should be, and about those ones …?) seems to be a straw man. I still can’t think of any serious person who actually claims that we do that, and no wonder because the claim doesn’t even seem intelligible.

  30. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    Why do you claim to be such an ordinary non-philosophical person if you’ve read all the philosophical literature?

    I’ve been in close contact with people with serious psychological problems for a long time and I’ve learned not to see them as wholly responsible for the way they are. That has led me to see that although I have not been diagnosed with any serious mental disorders, I am not always wholly responsible for the way that I am, at least not in a simplistic libertarian sense of the word “responsible”. On the other hand, I would say that I have greater control over and hence, more responsiblity for the way that I am than the people with clear disorders whom I refer to.

    It’s a question of degrees of responsibility. It’s not an either/or thing.

    It’s something I live with on a daily basis: trying to figure out how responsible people around me and I am for their actions.

  31. Simple question, Russel (and thanks for hosting this): are you arguing that the default or most common human conception/perception of oneself and others is that we are all deluded automatons ?
    That when someone hits my car when parking or deliberately deflates the tires (sorry about the triviality, but this applies up the line), the first thing that comes to my mind is: “can’t complain, he couldn’t have done otherwise”?
    Of course not. We naturally consider ourselves and others as free agents.
    That’s the “default position”. Is it not?

  32. amos, I have zero formal training in philosophy (which certainly shows), and I certainly haven’t read all the literature! But as I have said, I have a genuine many years-long passion for these subjects. That’s why I spend so much time reading and thinking about them, and that’s why I’m typing these words on this keyboard, rather than watching whatever junk there is on TV.
    I might come across as dogmatic, but believe me, I have no clue what the ultimate answer to the question of free-will (among many others) is. Nor do I belong to any club (the compatibilists, the incompatibilists, the dualists interactionists, the duelists, perhaps?).
    As the old philosopher said, the only thing I know for sure, is that I don’t know. I’m probing. I change my mind when someone or something convinces me.
    So, to our subject, when I listened to Dennett’s lecture on free-will, I was stumped. “What the heck is he talking about” was my overarching thought.
    The conception of free-will he was setting forth had absolutely nothing to do with what I, a common, non-philosopher folk, a lay-free-willer, had ever thought about.
    And this is what I’ve been arguing on this thread (and another) and I think I’ll stop.
    Right or wrong, Harris IS talking about free-will.
    And I fully concur when he writes that “Dennett is changing the subject”.
    Cheers!

  33. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    I’m not a trained philosopher myself.

    I admit that I do not understand’s Dennett’s conception of free will either nor do I feel that he explains consciousness in his book explaining consciousness.

    I don’t like to sound like I’m fishing for a good grade (that’s a joke), but I do think that in this series of posts on free will, Russell has
    sketched as good an outline of a compatibilist posture, one which is fully consistent with a commitment to naturalism, as I know of, without having read deeply into the subject myself.

    It’s late. I think that I’ll stop too.

  34. I see three bits to all this: causation, reason and reasoned self-regulation, and moral responsibility.

    The “could have done otherwise” definition of free will comes, I think, from the Humean definition of a cause ie if A had not happened, B would not have occurred. But, as others pointed out above, we can then get tangled up in proximal and distal causes etc. In the usual scientific (cum-Aristotlean) way of thinking about causes, human decision making can be a proximal cause of an action [eg Baumeister et al Do conscious thoughts cause behavior]. Whether or not there are equally important causes distal to that is not relevant to causal efficacy.

    When I say “I wasn’t thinking when I did that”, it implies that I can carry out actions without conscious deliberation, that such deliberation can modulate my actions, and actions in the absence of deliberation do not fully reflect my will (Heatherton and Wagner review failure of self-regulation).

    The place where we see the reasoning and responsibility bits most obviously is in legal reasoning. This is heavily influenced by philosophy, but we also have “folk” juries who happily engage in deciding whether actions were free or under duress, if decision making was impaired or not, and whether an action was malicious or well intentioned.

  35. Stephen Lawrnce

    Russell,

    “I love the way that Steve and Stephen are making dogmatic statements from their armchairs about what ordinary people supposedly think.

    Fow what it’s worth, like Amos, I have never had this feeling of ultimate freedom, anterior to all the things that shaped my values, understanding of the world, etc., as they are. I can’t even imagine what such a feeling would be like.

    But you do believe the man who didn’t save the drowning child could have done otherwise and that is why he deserves the blame.

    That is it Russell, that is belief in Libertarian free will.

    My beliefs about this are based on empirical evidence.

    To believe people can deserve what happens to them as a result of their choices, and yes, just about everybody does, is to believe they have some power that makes that true.

    Stephen

  36. Stephen Lawrnce

    Russell,

    On empirical evidence, rather than dogma, the question that you need to ask people (and yourself) is when they are looking back at what they could have done, specifically to do with missed opportunities, things they are blaming themselves for, that sought of thing, ask if they mean could have in the actual situation, rather than could if their distant past had been slightly and appropriately different. :grin:

    you’ll have them rolling about on the floor laughing.

    They do indeed think they had the opportunity to do otherwise with the same past, not they had the opportunity because they might have had a slightly different past.

    I know because I have asked.

    Stephen

  37. A great piece on ABC, Russell – thanks for that. Much of what came to mind while reading both these pieces has already been covered in the comments, but I’m still quite stuck on how much importance should be placed on folk conceptions of, well, anything.

    It seems dead right to me that denying the possibility of free will will be misunderstood by many folk. But that seems true of many concepts or words that have a vast amount of technical baggage, and it’s possible to simply note these confusions while not treating them as somehow normative in the sense that they should dictate how “experts” should use the word(s) in question.

    For free will in particular, I’m with Harris (and others) in thinking that we could never act otherwise in exactly the same situation. And if it’s true that folk think they could have acted otherwise, I think they’re wrong (and my personal store of anecdata is all I have to go on in asserting that folk do seem to think this).

    Russell – on the Thursday night before the GAC, Dennett gave a great talk at Melbourne Uni, where his views became clearer to me than ever before. In really short summary (I hope to write this up in more detail later), he agreed that we’d do roughly the same sort of thing in roughly the same conditions, but that unpredictability in practice is all we need to retain free will.

    The question that remains for me is whether we’d potentially be able to eliminate “unpredictability in practice”, perhaps with increasingly sophisticated Libet-type experiments. If we could, it would appear that folk free will would collapse, because the illusion of contra-causal free will would be dispelled. But even if we couldn’t eliminate this unpredictability (and I’m making no judgement on whether we’d ever want to do such a thing), it remains an illusion that we could have acted otherwise in the strong sense.

    Rambly, potentially unhelpful comment, sorry. But to return to the start, what seems a key issue is whether we should care that folk concepts don’t match those of philosophers, and if we do, what should follow from that.

    Dennett defined free will as a political – not metaphysical – boundary between those who have the right sort of competencies for choices that they’d want to recognise as “theirs” and those who don’t have those competencies. Fine – I can agree that I have that sort of free will, but that I don’t have “real” free will. And so on, until we’re reminded of:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

  38. What on earth does “roughly” mean in this context? How can anyone be satisfied with such vagueness?
    And then that’s it? “unpredictability in practice” would salvage free-will?
    Because we can’t compute with certainty what you or I will do in such and such situation, we are both free agents? Because we’re limited computers? Or because uncertainty is woven into the fabric of reality? Would be nice if Dennett would clarify.
    Either way, this development says absolutely nothing about freedom of conscious will, call it “folk freedom”, “dude freedom” or whatever, in my view, “the only free-will worth wanting”.
    Thank you Jacques. You have both shed some welcome light on Dennett’s imprecisions and fully vindicated Harris’ position.
    It’s mind boggling that Russel or other philosophers don’t seem to grasp this.

  39. Stephen Lawrnce

    “the only free-will worth wanting”.

    Steve1

    Although we very much agree on what folk believe I disagree that Libertarian free will is worth wanting. It’s a “wicked witch” as one philospher put it and “a mean social myth” as another put it.

    Far from worth wanting, many of us think belief in it is harmful, which is why we spend time arguing against it.

    We believe it’s important to bear in mind, when judging behaviour, that people couldn’t have done otherwise and this does shift how we feel about blame, shame, guilt, praise and so on and this shift is for the better, as far as human relationships are concerned.

    As for any downside you may see, if you think about it, how much better could it get than to be an amazing biological choice making machine designed by natural selection?

    As choice makers, we’d be up the creek without a paddle otherwise, surely?

  40. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care. What I care about, is the truth of the matter.
    We disagree on one thing: as I have indicated before, I have no certainty. I am not defending a position. What I am trying to defend, is clarification. Something that can help move this debate and work forward. How can any progress be made if philosophers (like Dennett) trumpet “we have free will” when by any dude’s standards, he means something wholly different.
    OK, let me rephrase this: “Dude free-will”, the only “free-will” worthy of being named “free-will”.
    Russel, if you want to launch a “free-will” poll initiative, I’m willing to contribute $100. But let’s make sure questions are phrased in a simple way. Not: “if the universe is deterministic, blah blah”.
    Keep it “dude” simple.

  41. Stephen Lawrnce

    “Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care. What I care about, is the truth of the matter.”

    Well Steve, if the truth of the matter makes no difference to us, it’s not really that interesting is it?

    “How can any progress be made if philosophers (like Dennett) trumpet “we have free will” when by any dude’s standards, he means something wholly different.”

    I think we are stuck with there being more than one meaning of free will and all are in folk use.

    But when someone asks, do I have free will,they are usually asking about the contra causal sort. So the correct answer is usually no.

    “But let’s make sure questions are phrased in a simple way. Not: “if the universe is deterministic, blah blah”.
    Keep it “dude” simple.”

    How would you phrase it simply? Perhaps this: “Would we have free will if we had one possible future we could get to from our actual past?”

  42. When I say “I don’t care”, what I mean is that I don’t really care what the answer is. What I do care about, first and foremost, is that we get an answer. Once we get an answer (if we do), I’ll deal with it.
    Frankly, I really don’t think a poll is necessary, and I’ll bet another $100 or a dinner in New York that the overwhelming majority of responders will vouch for some sort of partial or total “dude” free-will.
    The question? Let’s think about it. I certainly wouldn’t introduce the term “free-will” or determinism or causality, or anything remotely technical.
    It has to be ultra-simple, everyday “dude” language. One question could be:
    - Do you agree with the following statement:
    When a person is born, that person’s future life can unfold in many different ways depending on that person’s decisions and actions throughout her life.
    - Strongly
    - Somewhat
    - Not at all
    - What the heck are you talking about?

  43. Stephen Lawrnce

    Steve1,

    “It has to be ultra-simple, everyday “dude” language. One question could be:
    – Do you agree with the following statement:
    When a person is born, that person’s future life can unfold in many different ways depending on that person’s decisions and actions throughout her life.
    – Strongly
    – Somewhat
    – Not at all
    – What the heck are you talking about?”

    The problem with this question is “somewhat” to “strongly” is objectively correct for most people, whether we have folk free will or not.

    So it doesn’t tell us anything.

    This is where Dennett is helpful. How a chess computer’s chess career turns out, very much depends upon it’s decisions and actions.

    There is no conflict with this and it having one future it can get to from it’s actual past.

    The problem kicks in when we start dishing out rewards and punishment for decisions and actions.

    How could the computer “deserve” the credit or the blame?

    Stephen

  44. Because you’ve figured out what Dennett really means?
    That’s quite an accomplishment, congrats!
    You might want to write a short blog or book (a la Harris) about this, because I’ve read comments by many dudes, intellectuals and trained philosophers alike, that are left… shall we say… scratching their heads as to what Dennett is really saying and how he really addresses the “hard problem” of free-will.
    Harris plainly says he doesn’t. And with that, I agree (so far).
    And I would love these two to duke it out in writing, because Harris certainly knows how to zero in on what counts, avoid the jargon and stay on subject.

  45. Well this is sad – I left a comment over at ABC’s page, which was apparently the wrong place to do it, and in any case it’s disappeared. I’ll rewrite a shorter one here.

    First off, I really liked the article.

    Russell, it seems to me that for you free will is important because it demarcates a line between being morally responsible for something, and not being morally responsible. What I was wondering while reading the article was what do you mean by “morally responsible”? What sort of work do you want that concept to do?

    Since acknowledging the non-existence of objective moral rules, I personally haven’t found it useful to think in terms of “moral” or “moral responsibility” – rather I think about people’s wants and desires and what can make them change their behavior.

  46. Stephen Lawrnce

    “Because you’ve figured out what Dennett really means?”

    Steve,

    The fact is our futures, to an extent, depend upon our decisons and actions.

    If I eat too much I will be fat in the future.

    There is little doubt about that, and if there is doubt it has nothing to do with free will, it’s to do with doubt that eating too much causes people to be overweight.

    The point is, whether I eat too much or not, as well as depending upon my choice, depends upon my birth circumstances.

    So whay happens depends upon our decisions and actions but they in turn depend upon our genetic make up and life experiences.

  47. Stephen Lawrnce

    Steve,

    “You might want to write a short blog or book (a la Harris) about this, because I’ve read comments by many dudes, intellectuals and trained philosophers alike, that are left… shall we say… scratching their heads as to what Dennett is really saying and how he really addresses the “hard problem” of free-will.”

    That’s easy, I can tell you the answer in a few lines.

    He says we don’t have that version of free will, so there is no “hard problem” of free will.

    It’s that simple.

    Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris believe the question you are asking, do we have Libertarian (folk) free will, is already settled.

  48. Quite possibly. However Dennett makes every effort to muddie up the issue to salvage moral responsibility and a “change the conversation” version of freedom (oh, this wonderful “evitability”). We are really sophisticated computers, much more sophisticated than an ant, thanks to evolution. We have many choices to make, we can represent these choices to ourselves, and we feel we are free- agents of our deliberations and choices, what else could we want?
    “The only free-will worth wanting”.
    And at the same time, he will deny that we are deluded automatons and that science is threatening free-will.
    Now try to square both, and you come out scratching your head.
    I feel Dennett would rather have us scratch our heads than face the “truth” (if that’s what it is in the end). I wouldn’t call that changing the conversation. I’d call that deliberate obfuscation. I wonder why he’s doing that.
    Harris is most definitely right.

  49. I think hard determinists like Sam Harris are way too overconfident about what can be known about other people’s state of mind and inner motivations (i.e. proximal causes): Soft Fascism & The Olsson Test.

  50. Andreas, this is a piece of garbage that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

  51. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    If you disagree with Andreas, refute him point by point. An insult is not a refutation.

  52. I am not insulting him, and I will let anyone judge whether associating Harris and his position with fascism serves any purpose with regards to this discussion. I actually resent such methods. They remind me of some Christian fundamentalists that associate atheism with moral depravity, or Stalin, or Hitler, or anything that will just serve to discredit or disqualify opposing point of views (or atheists who associate faith with mental backwardness and inquisition). It’s just plain sad.

  53. Steve,
    I think you’re reacting purely and overwhelmingly from your gut. You have been indoctrinated that fascism is so bad that it’s impossible for you to reflect on what fascism means. Before I even continue, do not confuse fascism with the Nationalsocialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), more commonly known as the Nazis. Though the NSDAP was modled after Mussolini’s institutions, the near eschatological worldview of the NSDAP makes it palingenetic, unique and almost incomprehensible. The fascism that has any justifyable rational is an ideology of extreme national union that existed in places like Spain untill as late as 1978. In opposition to this stands anarchism, where corporeal sovereignty is almost complete (the state is reduced to an absolute bare minimum).

    To claim that it’s not relevant to the discussion is to claim it is of no import what social and political consequences ideas like those expressed in Sam Harris’s book have. Philosophical ideas can be the most socially upheaving forces. Their societal implications is what matters. Harris himself makes the claim this is a huge social issue. If Sam Harris talk about our lack of self-determination and potential epistemic certainity had no effect, why should we even bother discussing it? It would be like discussing a wart on on our back.

    What you cannot deny is that Sam Harris is willing to transorm our constitutional framework quite drastically because of his view about Free Will. The individual in his universe is legitimatly far more compromised by the impositions of others. I think it’s fair for me to point out what his proposed changes imply. If you don’t like the term fascism for the type of extreme national union I think he is ultimatwly talking about, please propose another ideological term. Note that I said it is possible that this type of extreme union might ultimately be the appropriate political system. I’m trying to keep my mind open.

  54. At this point, I am not that interested in what the possible political implications of Joe or Max’s positions on free-will are. And I certainly wouldn’t disqualify or discredit Joe or Max’s person or position based on perceived or projected political or societal consequences to their theories. Of course, if Sam starts advocating any sort of fascism, I’ll be first in line to blast him for that. Although that still will say nothing about the validity or falsity of his views on free-will.
    Do you want the truth or do you want comfort? I’m interested in and focusing on the “truth” of the matter at hand. And in order to do that, it’s helpful not to change the conversation, which I believe that, at best, if there is no intent on your part to discredit Sam’s position on free-will, you are doing.

  55. Steve,
    Russell’s post is a reference to Sam Harris’s book Free Will. If you have read the book, you will know that Sam Harris makes rather sweeping statements about morality and justice:

    The belief in free will has given us both the religious conception of “sin” and our commitment to retributive justice. The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation of our system of law, distinct from “a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with underlying precepts of our criminal justice system” (United States v. Grayson, 1978). Any intellectual developments that threatened free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior in question.

        Sam Harris (Free Will, p.48)

    Sam Harris is not truly debating free will in his book, even if it is so titled and he limits his three pages of conclusion to what he is and in’t free to do. He is categorically stating that describing free will as an illusion is the only reasonable position. His book is not a socratic work. He is stating that given, that it is the only reasonable position, we must alter our legal system. Therefore, the book is far more political than anything. And not politically socratic, but categorically political. He could claim that he does not discuss how legislative acts should be passed. But an attack (and, I’m sorry, that is what it is) on a system of justice is an attack on an entire political system. If our jurisprudence should not “punish” people, then surely our legislature should create a framework that does not permit such “punishment”.

    So what is it we should do if we should not “punish” people? Surely, the only other option is to correct them, and only if they are unfixable should we contain them. But if they are not fixable, why should we even contain them? Why should we not – and I’m pretty sure you are going to shout foul at this too – terminally eliminate them from society? From my perspective I am simply following Harris’s logic to the bitter end. He himself implores us to face the inevitable logical truth: that free will is an illusion and that our justice system is based on a false premise.

    This is what you want as well, the inevitable truth, come whatever may. And yes, I am not suggesting we should avoid the conclusion that free will is meaningless (if it can indeed be proven that it is largely meaningless) simply because we are afraid of the consequence. The consequence according to me is a form of extreme national union (I’m deliberately avoiding the F word). If we can purge society of deception by means that are not physically violent, then it will be a much “softer” national union than past experiences (but I suspect equally extreme). Because I think these conclusions must be drawn if Sam Harris is right, I suggested that we should have as water tight a proof as possible for his epistemological claims (mainly that we can conclusively gain knowledge about a specific person’s inner causality).

  56. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “This is what you want as well, the inevitable truth, come whatever may. And yes, I am not suggesting we should avoid the conclusion that free will is meaningless (if it can indeed be proven that it is largely meaningless) simply because we are afraid of the consequence. The consequence according to me is a form of extreme national union (I’m deliberately avoiding the F word). ”

    But what is wrong with an extreme national union?

    Surely it’s best to just say what’s bad about it and why we shouldn’t go down that road.

    And that will be the reason not to do it.

    Bringing free will into it just adds confusion.

    If it’s bad, for what ever reasons, those reasons won’t go away if we don’t have free will.

  57. Stephen Lawrence

    Steve

    “Quite possibly. However Dennett makes every effort to muddie up the issue to salvage moral responsibility…………”

    Yes the motivation on all sides is concern over moral responsibility.

    I think it’s unecessary. There are practical reasons to hold people responsible and to take responsibility.

    People can quite easily get that, no need to add confusion with free will talk.

    “and a “change the conversation” version of freedom (oh, this wonderful “evitability”).”

    This is important, we need to divide things into evitable and inevitable, or in usual language avoidable and unavoidable.

    This is how we make the future what we want to be, to a certain extent. And this is how we decide whether it’s worth trying to prevent something or not.

    ” We are really sophisticated computers, much more sophisticated than an ant, thanks to evolution. We have many choices to make, we can represent these choices to ourselves, and we feel we are free- agents of our deliberations and choices, what else could we want?”

    It’s a good question and the feeling of freedom is genuine b.t.w, we feel more or less free depending upon our options because we are more or less free depending upon our options.

    “And at the same time, he will deny that we are deluded automatons and that science is threatening free-will.”

    He won’t deny that we are automations and he want deny that those who believe in Libertarian free will are in error (deluded)

    He will deny that science is threatening Libertarian free will, I suspect, because it has nothing to say about it, either way. Philosophers don’t believe in it in general because it’s an incoherent concept from the start. We don’t have it if determinism is true but we also don’t have it if indeterminism is true. What has science got to say about that?

    But the experience you have of making choices is real, he’ll deny that you are deluded about that.

    There are two mistakes that produce the “illusion” of free will.

    1) thinking alternative possibilities are alternatives that can be reached from the actual past. This can be overcome with a little philosophy.

    2) The illusion that consciousness is responsible for it’s contents, which can be overcome by paying attention to the experience. Thoughts just appear and we have no conscious knowledge of where they come from.

  58. For some reason, I haven’t been able to post comments. They are submitted but that’s where it ends…
    Finally found a piece of a Dennett lecture in which he spells it out (in answer to the last question).
    http://tinyurl.com/87puv7q
    at about 1:18″.
    I’ll rephrase it, but we’re left with: “we are automatons, but we do have free-will in a morally-relevant way.” So yes, Stephen, you are right.
    However, it is too early, in my skeptic’s opinion, to conclude that this matter is settled once and for all. This will have to be further verified scientifically. And it seems to me that both “consciousness and free-will” will either stand or fall under the “knife” of Libet’s children.

  59. Stephen Lawrence

    Steve,

    “I’ll rephrase it, but we’re left with: “we are automatons, but we do have free-will in a morally-relevant way.” So yes, Stephen, you are right.”

    The question is what morally relevent way?

    Take speeding fines as an example of holding people responsible and making them pay a penalty.

    Let’s assume it’s morally correct to do it (I think it is) and the reason is to make the roads less dangerous and so save people from being killed and seriously injured.

    Now, for it to work, some people who speed need to pay the penalty. If every circumstance was mitigating, nobody would pay the fine and nobody would take any notice of it.

    This group of people, who are merely unlucky to have their particular genes and life experiences and so make the wrong choice are morally responsible in that these are the people we should fine in order for the penalty to be effective. These are the people the fine is designed to slow down, although for them it didn’t work on that occassion.

    This weak moral responsibility is compatible with determinism.

    The problem comes in when we start talking about the losers or winners of this lottery deserving it.

    I’ve heard Dennett is working on “consequentialist desert” but this is stretching things way too far. People believe in desert and consequential reasons, like deterrent.

    People believe we are morally responsible in a much stronger sense than I outlined above, this is the “mean social myth”, that some of us think we’d be better off without.

    “However, it is too early, in my skeptic’s opinion, to conclude that this matter is settled once and for all. This will have to be further verified scientifically. And it seems to me that both “consciousness and free-will” will either stand or fall under the “knife” of Libet’s children.”

    Free will genuinely compatible with determinism will not, although I think it’s best not to use the term, it just confuses people.

    And, as for Libertarian free will, the problem is, it is seemingly logically impossible, so unless some way is found around that, science will have nothing to investigate.

  60. Stephen Lawrence

    B.T.W Steve, I think the point Dennett makes about Austin’s putt in the video is spot on and very important when thinking about the real version of could have done otherwise.

  61. Yes but I have to say I disagree with Dennett’s use of language.
    For instance, he writes:
    (His position should dispelle): “the fear that determinism reduces our possibilities”.
    It does not reduce the universe of possible outcomes, actually this universe is infinite (from the infinitely improbable to the the actual outcome). However although we might enjoy this infinitely open universe of possible outcomes, the actual outcome (on day D at time T in circumstances C) could have been predicted by a Laplacian Demiurge, thus, all we have is the illusion that we could have done otherwise.
    I certainly would’nt call that free will. I would call that the freedom illusion.

  62. Stephen Lawrence

    Steve

    “Yes but I have to say I disagree with Dennett’s use of language.
    For instance, he writes:
    (His position should dispelle): “the fear that determinism reduces our possibilities”.
    It does not reduce the universe of possible outcomes, actually this universe is infinite (from the infinitely improbable to the the actual outcome). However although we might enjoy this infinitely open universe of possible outcomes, the actual outcome (on day D at time T in circumstances C) could have been predicted by a Laplacian Demiurge, thus, all we have is the illusion that we could have done otherwise.”

    No, because when we are thinking about what we could have done, we are thinking about a subset of these infinite possibilities, whether we realise it or not. See the example of Austin’s putt.

    “I certainly wouldn’t call that free will. I would call that the freedom illusion.”

    Freedom depends upon our options, just like a caged lion is less free than one in the wild.

    Options are a subset of the infinite possibilities, the subset is things we can do if we choose to.

    We evaluate things we can do if we choose to and act upon the outcome.

    That’s as real as choice making gets, it is real choice making.

    The error is to think being able get to different futures from the same past would add to our freedom and make us deserving of what happens to us as a result of our choices.

    I think to call the error an illusion is misleading.

  63. “Freedom depends upon our options”
    Upon our options and capabilities.
    Certainly, we have more leeway in the universe of all possibles, than an ant or a lion. Consequently, it will take the Laplacian Demiurge more work to determine what we will do (although if he has infinite computing power at his disposal, the amount of work is meaningless).
    From our perspective, we are free and indeed, we do deliberate and make choices. We are conscious – or so we feel. The universe of our becomings seems open, although we recognize that we are limited beings. We have feelings, moral intuitions, and all the rest.
    But in the end, our perceived freedom is still a powerful illusion: you will become what you were determined to become. The Demiurge can map out your entire life, second by second, from your first breath to your last. None of your perceived freedoms and deliberations will alter anything to it. Oh, life might be enjoyable, you might revel in your perceived freedom and authorship of your life (you can even discuss the meaning of free-will!). You are subjectively free. But objectively, for a more knowledgeable observer, you are a wonderfully sophisticated automaton.
    For some, this will seem and feel absolutely fine. “The only free-will worth wanting”. I call this (Dennettian) statement a rationalization.
    For others, it will negate the very meaning and worthiness of life.
    And so, they’ll take one side or the other in this endless debate.

  64. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen Lawrence writes: “ This group of people, who are merely unlucky to have their particular genes and life experiences and so make the wrong choice are morally responsible in that these are the people we should fine in order for the penalty to be effective.

    So we should fine them? Well I agree because by fining them we produce a better future, but please observe that this kind of language presupposes the possibility of making the future better through our actions, i.e. presupposes the existence of free will.

    At the absence of free will (e.g. in a deterministic world) the concept of “should” makes no sense. Imagine the evolution of a cellular automaton (such as Conway’s game of life). Imagine observing a part of the system moving in a particular way and claiming that it “should not” have moved that way. Clearly to say this makes no sense whatsoever.

    I find it interesting how those who claim that free will does not exist (or is an illusion) at the same time speak in ways that only make sense if free will does exist. I suppose if one is a naturalist then one is forced to either speak inconsistently or else speak in absurd ways. I submit that the following holds: If reality is naturalistic then reality is unintelligible, and not only free will but also rationality is an illusion.

  65. Steve1:

    “For some, this will seem and feel absolutely fine. “The only free-will worth wanting”. I call this (Dennettian) statement a rationalization.
    For others, it will negate the very meaning and worthiness of life.”

    The irony is that if these others took the time to think it through, they’d see that being a libertarian chooser wouldn’t do them any good at all, since such a chooser wouldn’t have any basis on which to make a choice. Choices can only get made on the basis of existing motives informed by deliberation, and adding a causally uninfluenced decider to this process would only stall it or render it insensitive to actual circumstances, see “The flaw of fatalism” at http://www.naturalism.org/fatalism.htm

    This is also why there’s nothing inconsistent between being determined and being rational. Indeed, rationality depends on reliably deterministic connections between the world and our models of it and in our inferential apparatus that makes predictions when we simulate the future, http://www.naturalism.org/resource.htm#rationality

    Since we don’t know what the future holds (even though it’s determined, fixed in 4 dimensional spacetime) then based on past experience we quite rightly say that if you want X, then you should do Y, and this is to be rational.

  66. Tom Clark:
    “adding a causally uninfluenced decider to this process would only stall it or render it insensitive to actual circumstances”.

    It seems that you (and others) are absolutely ruling out two possible alternatives:

    - The emergence of true “freedom” from a fully determined or even quantum device: the brain. Meaning, that thought would become (more or less) free from the determinisms of its substrate and causally efficient over its substrate (this is actually already established: the mind can and does shape the brain). This shouldn’t be ruled out.

    - The existence of “soul stuff”, a form of extra-cerebral consciousness. After all, billions believe in one form or another of “soul stuff”. A large scale NDE study is underway so let’s see where it leads (although religious worldviews that set forth that one or even multiple earthly live would result in an eternity of joy of suffering are, in the name or morality, patently immoral and hardly credible for many reasons. Anyway, that’s another debate. )

    But IMHO, neither of these options should be completely discarded yet, save for dogmatic reasons.

  67. But what is wrong with an extreme national union? Surely it’s best to just say what’s bad about it and why we shouldn’t go down that road. And that will be the reason not to do it. Bringing free will into it just adds confusion. If it’s bad, for what ever reasons, those reasons won’t go away if we don’t have free will.

        Stephen Lawrence

    It sounds a little, after all, like you think the discussion on free will isn’t of much value at all. You can’t just separate yourself from the grounding of your belief system. What you suggest is at beast the same thing as refuting God and then piously going to church every Sunday. But since people express their beliefs, such behaviour is untenable in the long term. Humans seek consistency even if our lives are often contradictory in some of its details. 

    You can’t make the kind of claims Sam Harris makes and expect your audience to be satisfied with the social and political constructs built up around free will and epistemic uncertainty. Sam Harris himself admittedly doesn’t want this. He has been vociferously advocating against religion for many years. And he has now taken a similar approach towards comaptibilism not to mention indeterminism.

    Extereme national union is not not just a consequence of, but also a political analogy of what I see as the flaws in Sam Harris’s approach. The mention of this political system was in part intended to clarify what I think is wrong with rejecting free will conclusively. Sam Harris fails to take into account that:

    1) No single group has a clear monopoly on veracity.
    2) All knowledge is variously but ultimately  uncertain.

    There is a great difference between the truth and our knowledge of such verity. Sam Harris’s often fascile treatment of the subject matter erradicates this differrence. The result is a world where there is a clear path to truth (or to a “union”) that is monopolized by a well defined group (or “nation”). 

    The flaw is epistemological. Sam Harris has an overbearing confidence in the epistemic certainty that any group can reasonably achieve through non-political means (i.e. consensus building). He seems to think science can magically overcome all differences of opinion. Yet even he himself admits the following:

    There are many scientific frameworks (and levels of description) that resist integration and which divide our discourse into areas of specialization, even pitting Nobel laureates in the same discipline against one another. Does this mean that we can never hope to understand what is really going on in the world? No. It means the conversation must continue.

        Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape, p. 66)

    The only way to overcome such differences without some form of open, dialectic and political consensus building is some type of violence (i.e. forceful suppression of dissent). Despite Sam Harris’s commitment to scientific conversation above, his writing mostly comes across as pretty much of a monologue. Compare this to Daniel Dennett and his alter egos Otto and Conrad.

    To answer Jim P. Houston’s earlier question, I think Sam Harris does far more harm than good. Sam Harris browbeats his readership with something approaching scorn and ridicule for anything that dialectically opposes his view. His language is forcefull and assertive rather than questioning and refined. The sad thing, from my perspective,  is that I agree with some of his major and more important claims:

    -Morals are not relativistic
    -We are constrained by our environment
    -Science and logic can help us build a proper moral framework

    Where he goes dangerously astray is in the almost absolute certidude of his position. If one admits to an inherent fallibility in any single human’s epistemic framework, one must reject any categorical statements against free will, even assertions that determinism is true. It’s an epistemological error of grave importance. 

  68. Steve1:

    Right, as naturalists we don’t want to be dogmatic but rather go where the evidence leads us. But if either of the alternatives you cite inserts something uninfluenced at the core of a decision-making process, then it wouldn’t help the decider be more rational, whatever its ultimate make up.

    Of course sometimes randomness (or pseudo-randomness) can help in behavior control, for instance in seeking to evade predators, it could help a potential prey to have a random generator determining its next swerve. Or an artist might want stochastic processes helping her to generate designs among which to choose. But normally we want a reliably deterministic mechanism to get us from desire to outcome.

  69. Stephen Lawrence

    “It sounds a little, after all, like you think the discussion on free will isn’t of much value at all. You can’t just separate yourself from the grounding of your belief system. What you suggest is at beast the same thing as refuting God and then piously going to church every Sunday2

    This is not true Andreas.

    What ever the negative consequences you see of an extreme national union, Libertarian free will has nothing to do with it.

    And therefore your argument against an extreme national union will be the same whether we have free will or not.

    So I am able to agree with your reasons against an extreme national union and disbelieve in Libertarian free will, without any contradiction.

  70. Stephen Lawrence

    Dianelos,

    “So we should fine them? Well I agree because by fining them we produce a better future, but please observe that this kind of language presupposes the possibility of making the future better through our actions, i.e. presupposes the existence of free will. ”

    No it doesn’t. It presupposes preventative causes.

    The moon on it’s determined path get’s in between the sun and the earth and prevents the sun’s light from reaching the earth.

    That’s another example of a preventative cause.

    “At the absence of free will (e.g. in a deterministic world) the concept of “should” makes no sense. Imagine the evolution of a cellular automaton (such as Conway’s game of life). Imagine observing a part of the system moving in a particular way and claiming that it “should not” have moved that way. Clearly to say this makes no sense whatsoever. ”

    It does make sense, all you need is a rule and for it to be breaking it.

    “I find it interesting how those who claim that free will does not exist (or is an illusion) at the same time speak in ways that only make sense if free will does exist. ”

    Can you explain how free will makes sense of it?

  71. Well, Stephen, you could almost believe anything regardless of whether determinism is actually true. I suppose you could believe that fairy dust is good for your Euripides*.

    But, you can’t reasonably believe anything you wish. One of the main problems with Sam Harris’s approach is his certitude. He doesn’t say that determinism might be true. He states that it is MUST be true. With his approach, we might just as well get rid of peer reviewed publications, scientific panels, etc. on human behavior. What do we need them for? We have Sam Harris’s (f)MRI’s and clearcut methodology of causality mining. And Bertand Russell’s following piece of wisdom (which I have already quoted) should be thrown out the window:

    [...] a physicist looks for causes; that does not necessarily imply that there are causes everywhere. A man may look for gold without assuming that there is gold everywhere; if he finds gold, well and good, if he doesn’t he’s had bad luck. The same is true when the physicists look for causes.

        Bertrand Russell (Excerpt from A Debate on the Argument of Contingency – BBC 3, 1948)

    Thinking in terms of political theory is helpful because it is the practical embodiment of a belief system. You have to ask yourself why we have modern democratic republics (MDR’s). Do we have them because their fabric goes nicely with our eye color? No, obviously not. An MDR is a stable solution to the problem of epistemic uncertainty within a large group. If there was no epistemic uncertainty, we wouldn’t need them. Laws could just be promulgated based on our near perfect knowledge. The idea of the Infallibility of the Church had (and still has) real effect on how Catholics organized their lives and dealt with papal claims.

    Sam Harris is prepared to act on his belief that free will is an illusion and that the causal chains that animate people can be very well understood (if not better) by others. As he should be. He has suggested that the Fifth Amendment is an atavism:

    [The] prohibition against compelled testimony itself appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age. It was once widely believed that lying under oath would damn a person’s soul for eternity, and it was thought that no one, not even a murderer, should be placed between the rock of Justice and so hard a place as hell.

        Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape, p.135)

    That’s a pretty strong statement. He believes deception is on the cusp of being reduced to a bare minimum, and hence protections against it can be drastically lowered. In all fairness, he does realize nothing is quite perfect:

    Of course, no technology is ever perfect. Once we have a proper lie detector in hand, well-intentioned people will begin to suffer its propensity for positive and negative error. This will raise ethical and legal concerns. It is inevitable, however, that we deem some rate of failure to be acceptable.

        Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape, p.135)

    But again and again, he leans towards a non-sceptical attitude about what can be known about causa humana and achieved by the grace of technology. Why? Because he firmly believes that cause is to be found everywhere and that it’s just a matter of digging deep enough. Take one of Sam Harris’s own examples from the book Free Will: Steven J. Hayes. How sure do you ever think we can really be about what made him commit his horrible crime? Sam Harris seems to think that finding the cause for such monstrosities is just a matter of time, brain tumors and DNA. Do you agree with him? If you do, do you potentially see any danger in such a belief? Or is it perfectly reasonable?

    If such a belief is reasonable, could we not save tax dollars by reducing our court systems to trials by single certified science officers? If compelled testimony is permissible and sufficiently reliable lie detectors can be built, one has to justify expending public monies on jury selection and duty and all the other complexities we associate with our current jurisprudence.

    —————————————————-
    * Though strictly, since I understand a belief to be something we can attach a truth-value to, I’m not sure about such a bizarre statement. I have no idea what “fairy dust” is nor “your Euripides”. But you could believe something like “trees grow better in concrete without any water than in moist soil”.

  72. swallerstein (amos)

    There is something special about Sam Harris.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ScMJEVoj-s

    Here is an online debate in which two top level philosophers, Simon Blackburn and Peter Singer, patiently and clearly explain in language that even an idiot like me can understand that first of all, it is not so easy to show that what maximizes well-being is the good (as Harris claims) and that even if one accepts that what maximizes well-being is the good, reasonable people can disagree about what constitutes well-being.

    Yet Harris, who also participates in the debate, pays them no attention at all and goes on with the confidence of a sleep-walker insisting that maximizing well-being is the good and that science (and not only science, but the version of science that Sam Harris subscribes to) can tell us (or rather tells Sam) what is real well-being is.

    I would not want to live in a society governed or administered by Sam Harris.

  73. Pat Churchland has actually recently been quite harsh on Harris and his “moral landscape”, almost dismissive. And I’m thinking Dennett’s might be politely heading the same way, which would explain his silence regarding Sam’s request for an open discussion on free-will. I’m not quite sure why there’s such a fuss about Harris anyway. Is our society at risk of being Harrisised? No. Is he putting some important issues on the map for many commoners like myself? Yes. Might he help clarify some issues? Yes. Am-I subjugated by Harris? No. Am-I convinced by every Harrisism? No.
    So let’s relax. No need for Harris-wars.

  74. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen Lawrence writes “The moon on it’s determined path get’s in between the sun and the earth and prevents the sun’s light from reaching the earth.

    Right, but nobody says that the moon *should* go on that path in order to prevent sun’s light from reaching the earth – as if it were possible for the moon not to go on that path.

    To review the matter at hand: If the future of all reality is fixed it makes no sense to say something like “you should do X in order for Y to obtain in the future”. Perhaps it is determined that you will do X, and perhaps it is determined that I will tell you that you should do X – but the normal meaning of the sentence “you should do X in order for Y to obtain in the future” is rendered incoherent in a deterministic reality. If reality is deterministic then much of our thoughts and of our discourse are nonsense.

    If reality is deterministic then the human condition is absurd, and those determinists who think they know a way to make sense of their life are fooling themselves.

  75. Stephen Lawrence

    I agree Steve,

    Just about everybody believes in Libertarian free will.

    It’s more pervasive and more influencial than belief in God.

    And thank goodness Sam Harris is telling it like it is.

    Of course we don’t have it.

  76. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “Well, Stephen, you could almost believe anything regardless of whether determinism is actually true. I suppose you could believe that fairy dust is good for your Euripides*.

    But, you can’t reasonably believe anything you wish.

    That does not address what I said which was, whatever reasons you have for being against an extreme national union, I can agree with them and affirm we do not have Libertarian free will without contradiction.

  77. Jim P Houston

    ‘Just about everybody believes in Libertarian free will… It’s more pervasive and more influential than belief in God.’

    Such bold claims could do with just a hint of empirical evidence to back them up.

    Others have already cautioned against making empirical claims in the absence of evidence. But clearly both Steve1 and yourself think there are other ‘ways of knowing’ that circumvent any need for empirical research – intuition, anecdote and the bald assertions of a famous atheist are, it seems, all the grounds one needs in order to make claims about what ‘just about everybody believes’.

    Hurrah for science and reason.

  78. swallerstein (amos)

    Hello Jim,

    My completely unscientific guess would be that lots of people believe in libertarian free will when they are blaming non-members of the group that they identify with and believe that they and members of the group that they identify with are victims of circumstances, of social forces that they do not control or of passions that they do not control.

  79. swallerstein (amos)

    What’s more, the same people see their merits and their successes as the results of libertarian free will, while they blame their defects and failures on the force of circumstances, the social conditions, social discrimination, having had inadequate parents, etc.

  80. [...] whatever reasons you have for being against an extreme national union, I can agree with them and affirm we do not have Libertarian free will without contradiction.

        Stephen Lawrence

    The important question is if you think that some type of scientists - call them psychohistorians – can understand the causes and  consequences of your behavior as well if not better than you. If you believe this, then extreme national union begins to take form. 

    To extricate yourself, you have to justify why such psychohistorians’  need to engage in consensus building with anyone else. Their understanding is of such perfect nature that they should not require the tedious vestiges of a modern democratic republic. Not in their legislatures, governments nor halls of justice. They are the lords of society, to whom’s will we plebeians ought to bend.

    And if you don’t believe in the possibility of a discipline like psychohistory, then why do you have a firm belief in determinism?

  81. Tim, I brought up moral responsibility because it is a concept employed in definition of free will actualy used by most philosophers, at least these days. The point was that Harris is using his own pet definition of free will and ignoring how philosophers actually define it.

    He also ignores all the evidence – both of a humanistic kind from studying myth, fictional narrative, etc., and more scientific efforts – of what the folk actually think of or are worried about when they use such expressions as “free will”.

    I’m actually more concerned by what the folk think than by what philosophers think, though it appears to me that the evidence on the former is rather ambiguous. There may be different strands to what they think (including even what individuals think). If that’s so, we need to be careful about what we’re actually conveying when we say to ordinary people, “You don’t have free will.”

    My concern isn’t actually so much moral responsibility. It is that Harris is doing bad pop philosophy in his new book, and that it needs to be contested since he has a large audience.

    As for moral responsibility. There’s a sense in which we don’t, IMO, have moral responsibility all the way down any more than I think we have free will all the way down. So nothing in what I’ve said is based on a wish to defend some metaphysical form of moral, all-the-way-down responsibility.

    As far as my views on moral responsibility go – here is a very rough summary. Generally speaking, I think we are praiseworthy or blameworthy for our actions and characters relative to social (including legal and moral, but also aesthetic and probably other) standards.

    Social standards are, in turn, good or bad relative to how efficiently they advance (or otherwise) the desires or interests that are in question in our conversations – the ones that we broadly, if tacitly, agree on as salient. Usually there is a fair bit of such tacit agreement, even interculturally.

    Nothing more is necessary, but the actual judgments involved about what standards we should support (given the interests and desires that we care about), and how individual people, their characters, their actions, etc., then line up against certain standards, will get complicated. It’s not surprising that we see a mixture of considerable agreement and an element of seemingly intractable disagreement.

  82. Jim P Houston

    Hello Amos,

    My unscientific guess is that there is more than a kernel of truth in what you say.

    That said, I’m cautious about drawing conclusions about subscription to a metaphysical thesis from the actual practises of humans. The prevalence of practices that would only be ‘justified’ if something like libertarian free will were real – punishment purely for the sake of retribution – would not, of itself, constitute evidence that people subscribe to said metaphysical theory. It only shows you that people have a base urge to seek retribution. Presumably there is some unsurprising evolutionary explanation for our wrathful urges.

    Acts of praising and blaming – carrots and sticks – can be made sense of without talk of ‘freewill’. We housetrain dogs without the assumption that they have immaterial souls, ‘could have done otherwise’ in any ‘deep’ way, or can be held ‘morally responsible’ for their actions. We simply don’t need talk of ‘freewill’ or ‘moral responsibility’ to say all that can be usefully said about chimpanzees enforcing norms of conduct within their groups. To my mind, much the same is true of their less hirsute cousins. Far more learned minds than mine think otherwise, but that’s my un-philosophical guess.

  83. Stephen Lawrnce

    Andreas,

    “The important question is if you think that some type of scientists – call them psychohistorians – can understand the causes and consequences of your behavior as well if not better than you. If you believe this, then extreme national union begins to take form.”

    Does it? If so what does it have to do with free will. And also if so, so what? The consequences of the truth don’t tell us what is true or not.

    “And if you don’t believe in the possibility of a discipline like psychohistory, then why do you have a firm belief in determinism?”

    Because determinism is true it doesn’t necessarily follow that psychohistory is possible. Perhaps it is, I dunno.

    I suspect determinism is true because I see no good reason not to.

    We think in terms of what would happen in a given situation in our day to day lifes and it works. When what would happen doesn’t happen, we think we weren’t in the given situation after all and we often find a reason why not, like the fuse in the kettle had broken, for instance.

    Why does thinking in terms of determinism work? Quite likely because determinism is true.

    But I’ve said many times I don’t affirm that determinism is true.

    I affirm that any freedom and responsibility that really exists is compatible with determinism.

    And that people believe in a CHDO in the actual situation that somehow makes the part of the lottery we end up in fair to us. (Libertarian a.k.a contra causal free will)

    And that is the “mean social myth” it is bad for us to think like this and better to understand that there for circumstances go I.

    I’m happy to call myself a determinist because I believe it’s the best way to look at life for practical purposes, like relating to each other and trying to get what we want, and setting realistic goals.

  84. Stephen Lawrnce

    Jim,

    “‘Just about everybody believes in Libertarian free will… It’s more pervasive and more influential than belief in God.’

    Such bold claims could do with just a hint of empirical evidence to back them up.

    The internet is littered with empirical evidence.

    I’ve seen more than enough empirical evidence to be convinced.

    People will say over and over and over when blaming, that the justification is that somebody “had a choice” and if you quiz you find they mean another option they could have taken in the actual situation.

    And if you ask something like did that choice depend upon their genetic make up and past experiences they’ll say no.

    If you ask if they would have needed a slightly different past in order to have done otherwise, they will say no, he had a choice.

    It really does look like even Russell did it with his example of the drowning boy, although perhaps not.

    But amongst non philosophers it’s absolutely the norm.

    And look at what scientists believe. Darwin was an incompatibilists and disbelieved in free will. So was Einstein. So is Sam Harris. So is Jerry Coyne. And so was Richard Dawkins (don’t know what he now thinks).

    To many the problem is framed as free will or determinism.

    It takes time for people to come round to compatibilism because it’s so very strange to them.

    And again the internet is littered with examples of this.

  85. Stephen Lawrnce

    Dianelos

    “Stephen Lawrence writes “The moon on it’s determined path get’s in between the sun and the earth and prevents the sun’s light from reaching the earth.”

    Right, but nobody says that the moon *should* go on that path in order to prevent sun’s light from reaching the earth – as if it were possible for the moon not to go on that path. ”

    The first point is if the moon can prevent the sunlight from reaching the earth, we can prevent deaths and injuries on the road.

    The second point is it seems it was possible for the moon not to go on that path.

    How could the moon prevent the sunlight from reaching the earth, if it was impossible for the light to have reached the earth?

    So the determined moon could have done otherwise.

    “To review the matter at hand: If the future of all reality is fixed it makes no sense to say something like “you should do X in order for Y to obtain in the future”.

    It makes sense.

    The moon just makes things happen.

    We make things happen on purpose.

    So in order to fulfil the purpose of Y happening in the future we should do X because if we don’t Y won’t happen.

    This motivates us to do X and thus Y happens and we purposefully make our future what we want it to be.

  86. Stephen Lawrnce

    Jim,

    I’ll just add this, look at what Dianelos says here.

    “Right, but nobody says that the moon *should* go on that path in order to prevent sun’s light from reaching the earth – as if it were possible for the moon not to go on that path. ”

    What is being said is we have some way of getting to different futures from the same past that the moon does not.

    And that this is what makes sense of saying we should do X.

    This is absolutely typical of what people intuitively believe.

  87. Jim P Houston

    Hi Stephen,

    Thank you for your comments – I daresay I could have responded to your claims more productively.

    I’m not out to make any claims about the prevalence of belief in libertarian freewill. I’m not asserting that your claim is wrong only that it seems unwarranted. I just don’t see any evidence that warrants the strong claims that “just about everybody believes in Libertarian free will” and that it is ‘more pervasive and more influential than belief in God.’

    Regarding your claim that ‘the internet is littered with empirical evidence’ in favour of these claims, it seems to me, that we have a different conception of ‘empirical evidence’. I’m thinking of the findings of properly conducted experimental philosophy. In the absence of that – and there’s not much of it – I just don’t think you are entitled to make bold assertions about what almost everybody believes on the basis of your online debating experience.

    Regarding what the ‘authorities’ think, I’d be hard-pressed to name a reputable scientist or (non-theistic) philosopher who believed in libertarian ‘contra-causal’ free will and amongst those one can, of course, include Dennett. That scientists and philosophers disbelieve in ‘libertarian free will’ doesn’t show that vast majority of the general population believes otherwise or that ‘freewill’ should be equated with ‘libertarian free will’. Both compatibilists and in-compatibilists commonly claim that their idea of ‘free will’ is in accordance with typical pre-theoretical intuitions – maybe they are both right but ‘talking past each other’ given the ambiguity surrounding the term ‘freedom’. I believe Ted Honderich made claims to this effect.

    In any case, though I don’t myself see talk of ‘freewill’ as useful – I’m not motivated to save ‘moral responsibility’ from the perceived dangers of determinism – I’d suggest that we need to investigate what ‘free will’ means to ‘ordinary people’ using experimental methods. To me this seems preferable to asserting, without anything a scientist would recognise as evidence, that virtually all ‘ordinary people’ believe in metaphysical libertarianism. As I said, I’m not asserting that you are wrong – just that you seem to have insufficient warrant for such strong claims.

  88. I am surprised to no ends that professional philosopher don’t see that, unless they reflect deeply about the matter, or unless their culture indicates otherwise, human beings are natural libertarian free-willers. I think you guys spend so much time dissecting things with your peers, that you forget that most people simply don’t even question their perceptions. They are perfectly happy with the “default position”, in this case, libertarian free-will. Natural born dualists, natural born free-willers, these two go hand in hand.
    And again, if you really want to test this, it has to be clear what you want to test.
    - Do you want to induce people to deeply reflect upon this matter (introducing concepts like “determinism”, etc) and then answer a set of questions?
    - Or do you want not to induce them to reflect upon the matter (do not introduce any new concepts), and just go with their “off the cuff” views?
    These are two different lines of experiments. I would certainly go with the second, and then, if you want, with the first, which would then indicate wether “folk” or “dudes” like me can change their minds if provided with proper time to think, proper conceptual tools, or proper nudging.
    But I’m with Harris and Stephen on this one. 100 bucks on it (safest bet ever): the folk is a default libertarian.

  89. Stephen Lawrence

    Hi Jim,

    <>

    Could if the big bang had banged slightly and appropriately differently. :smile:

    <>

    OK. I don’t always need that, just as I don’t need properly conducted scientific experiments to tell me that rain makes the grass wet.

    <>

    I think we know just about everybody believes in desert based moral responsibility, based on “having a choice” or as philosophers put it could have done otherwise.

    <>

    That misses the point which was that the fact that many scientists believe free will is incompatible with determinism, is empirical evidence.

    <>

    I doubt compatibilists generally do that, and if so it’s folly.

  90. Stephen Lawrence

    Oops, sorry Jim, I was trying to highlight your comments and respond to them, but instead managed to make them disappear.

    Oh well.

  91. Stephen Lawrence

    Steve,

    “I am surprised to no ends that professional philosopher don’t see that, unless they reflect deeply about the matter, or unless their culture indicates otherwise, human beings are natural libertarian free-willers”

    Yep

  92. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    How would you know that human beings are “natural” libertarian free-willers?

    I will even accept for the purpose of this discussion that you have an accurate view of how people within your culture, that of the contemporary U.S. I take it, see the issue, but how do you know how people, in say, New Guinea, see the issue? How do the Chinese see it? How about people from Angola?

    I live in Chile and as I’ve suggested above, my sense is that the people whom I know are free-will libertarians when they blame people from outside the groups that they identify with for their defects/failures and when they speak about their successes and merits, but that they deny libertarian free-will when they speak about their own failures and defects.

    Couldn’t it just be that your sense of what people believe about libertarian free-will reflects the culture that you live in?

    If so, wouldn’t it be more prudent, instead of speaking of human beings, to speak of contemporary Americans, from whatever section of that land that you come from?

  93. @amos
    “Couldn’t it just be that your sense of what people believe about libertarian free-will reflects the culture that you live in?”
    Of course, culture has enormous influence. That’s why I specifically wrote “unless their culture indicates otherwise”.
    It would actually be very interesting to run a cross-cultural study.
    “they deny libertarian free-will when they speak about their own failures and defects.”
    That’s interesting. How do they express this to you? But of course, we all tend to rationalize our failures and blame them on others (or fate, or whatever). Suddenly, hard determinism becomes very appealing. A good suffering-avoidance strategy.
    The “default position”, I would argue, is bound to our perceptions.
    By default, we believe we are conscious and have conscious will. By default, we believe we have real libertarian choices. And we certainly treat others as if they also had libertarian free-will. As I indicated to Russel above, “if someone hits my car when parking or deliberately deflates my tires, the first thing that comes to my mind is not: “can’t complain, he had no real choice in the matter”.
    But perhaps professional philosophers are wired differently ;)

  94. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    You insist that it’s “wiring” and that has yet to be shown.

    It may be that your culture, the product of the Protestant ethic and all that stuff about individual responsibility so characteristic of America, has libertarian free-will as a default position.

    Maybe the Chinese don’t. I don’t know.

    I’m not all so sure that my first reaction if someone were to collide with my non-existent car is to blame him or her on grounds of libertarian free will, to tell you truth, but I’ve been “corrupted” by too much reading. In fact, when I see bad driving (and I see lots of it), I tend not to see things in terms of individual libertarian free will, but in socio-cultural terms, that is, to see bad drivers as determined by their culture, as not having much of a choice.

    Once again, I’m a compatibilist and so I think that bad drivers can learn to have a choice, can choose to have a choice but I doubt that they will, given the culture that they navigate in and given what I consider to be the default position for human beings, mental sloth.

  95. I’ve read a few papers and I am surprised at what experimental setups are used. Every time, the “folk” is asked “whether in a deterministic universe”…
    For instance, Nichols: “We presented participants with descriptions of two universes, a determinist universe (Universe A) and an indeterminist universe (Universe B)”.
    But to my mind, that’s really not what the discussion is or should be about. Again, the question is not: “Can the folk, given the proper background information, become (or not) a compatibilist!”
    The question is (or should be:) “Is the folk a natural libertarian”.
    In order to answer that question, you don’t want to introduce notions such as determinism or indeterminism, etc.
    Here is a quote from Nichol’s paper:
    “The traditional explanation for how we come to believe in indeterminist agency is that it comes from introspection (e.g. Reid 1969 [1788],
    Holbach 1970 [1770]). When we introspect it does not seem to us that our choices are determined. Introspection fails to reveal any deterministic underpinnings of my decision making. Although this is true, it can
    hardly be a complete explanation of how we acquire the belief in indeterminist choice.”
    Why should it not be a complete explanation? On what grounds? And even if it’s not a complete explanation, isn’t it still absolutely central?
    And here’s Nichols’ conclusion:
    ” First, we would need evidence that people do in fact have a standing belief that we have introspective access to all the causal processes underlying our own decision making. Second, the account also has to assume that people carry out the required inference to arrive at the view that agency is indeterminist. Third, this account would only apply to oneself. It would need to be supplemented to explain why we think that other people’s decisions are indeterministic. Finally, this explanation of the indeterminist intuition will not extend easily to explain the acquisition of the incompatibilist belief that determinism precludes responsibility.”

    Wow! Wow! Hang on! What is this about!?
    The “folk” doesn’t think or talk “determinism” or “indeterminism”. Nor more than he ponders whether “we have introspective access to all the causal processes underlying our own decision making”. Nor does he care! I’d bet many, if not most “folks” don’t even know what “determinism” or “introspective access” means.
    Again, it seems to me that some philosophers seem to have lost the ability to be “folks” and to reason like folks. Or even to ask the relevant questions.

  96. Where do you score on the Knowability of Human Motivation Scale? Are you a Freedom Fighter or Borg? The Harris Wars

  97. Steve 1:

    “It would actually be very interesting to run a cross-cultural study.”

    Have a look at “Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?”

    http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~snichols/Papers/Is_Belief_in_Free_will_a_Cultural_Universal

    Abstract: Recent experimental research has revealed surprising patterns in people’s
    intuitions about free will and moral responsibility. One limitation of this research,
    however, is that it has been conducted exclusively on people from Western cultures. The
    present paper extends previous research by presenting a cross-cultural study examining
    intuitions about free will and moral responsibility in subjects from the United States,
    Hong Kong, India and Colombia. The results revealed a striking degree of cross-cultural
    convergence. In all four cultural groups, the majority of participants said that
    (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with
    determinism.

  98. Stephen Lawrnce

    Empirical evidence of folk who are scientists incompatibilist intuitions.

    I realise this isn’t quite what philosophers are looking for but I think these examples are interesting enough to post and there are many more.

    http://www.naturalism.org/celebrities.htm

    ” Charles Darwin: “…one doubts existence of free will [because] every action determined by heredity, constitution, example of others or teaching of others.” “This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything…nor ought one to blame others.” From Darwin’s notebooks, quoted in Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, pp. 349-50.”

    http://www.einsteinandreligion.com/spinoza2.html

    Einstein

    “I do not have the professional knowledge to write a scholarly article about Spinoza. But what I think about this man I can express in a few words. Spinoza was the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action. In my opinion, his point of view has not gained general acceptance by all those striving for clarity and logical rigor only because it requires not only consistency of thought, but also unusual integrity, magnamity, and — modesty. ”

    http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_9.html

    Dawkins.

    “Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour.”

  99. swallerstein (amos)

    Stephen:

    Spinoza is a compatibilist.

    Maybe Einstein should have read the Ethics with more attention, especially books 4 and 5, which discuss “the free man”.

  100. Not a scientific survey, but still better than purely anecdotal claims: The Drowning Child. This survey focuses on the epistemological aspect.

  101. Stephen Lawrnce

    Amos,

    Einstein was writing about the negation of Libertaarian free will and you about the affirmation of compatibilist freedom.

    Two seperate, though related subjects.

  102. swallerstein (amos)

    Stephen:

    Actually, Spinoza’s views on the subject follow a slightly different line than that of your standard party-line compatibilist.

    First of all, he has no interest in the theme of moral responsibility or of blame. I think that he would assume that normal non-free people are not responsible for their actions.

    However, in general, Spinoza is not moralistic. Ethics for Spinoza is not a process of assigning praise and blame, but a technique for living a good (freer, if not totally free) life.

    Spinoza emphasizes that through the use of reason, one can free oneself (to a certain extent) from being caused by unconscious factors and from passions that one does not control. In fact, the main theme of the Ethics is how to take control of one’s life through the use of reason, although, once again, Spinoza concedes that one can never be a wholly free cause. Only God (Being in general, not a personal divinity) is a free cause or cause of one self, according to Spinoza.

  103. jim p houston

    Stephen,

    Einstein was indeed writing about, and dismissing, the notion of Libertarian free will – a notion Spinoza was famously scathing of. But you cited Einstein as a scientist with ‘incompatibilist intuitions’ – not as someone who denied the reality of libertarian ‘contra-causal’ freewill. And for those purposes, you could just have easily cited a historical believer in Libertarian freewill as a person with ‘incompatibilist intuitions’ – they also held that ‘freewill’ properly understood is incompatible with determinism (it’s just that the latter held choice determinism to be false). The relevant quote shows Einstein’s endorsement of Spinoza’s position. Thus for Amos to point out that Spinoza was in fact a compatibilist (albeit of a rather peculiar type) doesn’t seem an entirely different subject to the one you raise.

    The reality of libertarian freewill simply isn’t at issue between you, Steve, Amos and I – indeed amongst those who have considered the matter only theists seem to think that notion makes any sense whatsoever. What is at issue, it seems, is whether the ‘compatibilist freedom’ – the freedom to do as you will that compatibilists and non-Libertarian incompatibilists typically agree obtains – is properly referred to as ‘freewill.’ Hume and Dennett would maintain, on the grounds that it is the only freedom that can obtain (and is worth having as Dennett notes) that it is. Hume and Dennett would also maintain that freedom of that nature is the ‘pre-theoretical’ notion of ‘freewill’ that obtains. That, I suppose, is where the controversy lies. The ‘changing the subject’ or ‘misuse of terms’ charge against compatibilists isn’t a novelty on Harris’ part, it’s an old criticism. I’m not entirely without sympathy for that charge – certainly I think we might be as well distinguishing between the nonsense idea of being free to will what you will and the idea of being free to do as you will with different terms. But the compatibilist’s usage of the term ‘freewill’ isn’t exactly a novelty.

    You mentioned earlier that “just about everybody believes in desert based moral responsibility”, what I’d concede is that just about everybody – including moral error theorists – hold individuals ‘morally responsible’ for their choices. But I’d say this in the sense intended by Strawson senior – all that it is to hold x ‘moral responsible’ is to hold ‘moral’ reactive attitudes towards x. Belief in (practical purposes) determinism – or moral error theory – wouldn’t stop that occurring – emotional reactions engrained by evolution aren’t going to overturned by a philosophical theories. But acceptance of determinism might, as people like Parfit have suggested, cause our reactive attitudes to alter somewhat over time.

  104. Stephen Lawrnce

    Jim,

    ” Einstein was indeed writing about, and dismissing, the notion of Libertarian free will – a notion Spinoza was famously scathing of. But you cited Einstein as a scientist with ‘incompatibilist intuitions’ – not as someone who denied the reality of libertarian ‘contra-causal’ freewill. ”

    Yes, my point was regarding empirical evidence that folk intuitively start out as libertarians.

    All these scientists, Darwin, Dawkins, Einstein, Coyne, Harris and more reject free will and in doing so they are identifying free will as incompatible with determinism.

    I think they are an interesting group because they are firstly folk and secondly scientists and it’s their science that leads them to be critical of their initial intuitions.

  105. [...] indeed amongst those who have considered the matter only theists seem to think that [libertarian freewill] makes any sense whatsoever.

    Jim P. Houston

    Hey Jim,
    But there is also those amongst us who consider the issue from an epistemological perspective. The idea being that the process by which we make the guesses that guide our actions are, at least in some respect, inherently mysterious (i.e unknowable). Does that make us theists? I have thought of myself more and more as a strong agnostic over the years. Unlike Stephen, I do not see my indeterminism as “libertarian”, but merely a humility vis à vis the infinitely amazing Universe. Yes, I believe animals have free will, but what I intend by this statement is that they have the evolutionary capacity (at least intergenerationally) to remain opaque to predators, including one’s wielding little (f)MRI’s.

    Perhaps this places me in close proximity to Dennett. But Dennet thinks of himself as a compatibilist, whereas I prefer to say that things are indetermined as long as no observer can make a statement about what occurred. Dennett spends a lot of time showing how you can have a deterministic universe where things avoid (and hence things are not inevitable). I, on my part, keep getting back to what Betrand Russell’s said about causality to Fredrick Copelston in 1948.

    From my perspective, determinists are in some sense far more theistic than indeterminists (with their hypothetical Equation E). Note that our odd fellow Spinoza was a great believer in the Uncaused Cause, which is hard to logically get away from. Isn’t the issue mainly about where this uncaused cause is to be conceived to “exist”? Is it “outside” of time and space? Is it an “infinite static construct” equatable to the whole Universe as such? Or is it, as I would guess, the process of the Universe becoming?

    It seems to me that the harder one stares at the line between theism and naturalism, the blurrier the line becomes until it almost slips silently into the void.

  106. Jim:

    “But acceptance of determinism might, as people like Parfit have suggested, cause our reactive attitudes to alter somewhat over time.”

    Yes, to quote Spinoza:

    “The mind is determined to this or that choice by a cause which is also determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on ad infinitum. This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.”

    In defending the moral responsibility system and the responsibility practices it justifies, compatibilists seem determined to downplay this softening of reactive attitudes. They are perhaps worried about “creeping exculpation” (Dennett’s term). But Bruce Waller shows this worry to be misplaced: http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm

  107. Stephen Lawrnce

    Andreas,

    “Unlike Stephen, I do not see my indeterminism as “libertarian”, but merely a humility vis à vis the infinitely amazing Universe.”

    I see you as a libertarian because you deny that “luck swallows everything” which I think is as good a definition of belief in Libertarian free will as any.

    If we view the universe as deterministic, there is an obvious sense of which we need luck in order to make a good choice, we need the luck that the distant past was such that our one possible future was to make that choice.

    That doesn’t fit with deserved consequences of choices.

    If you say ah but determinism isn’t true, what you are doing is arguing for some unimaginable form of indeterminism that overcomes the luck of determinism.

    And that’s just what belief in Libertarian free will is, the denial that luck swallows everything and that we have this unimaginable power that determinism would deny us.

    And if any of the above is not the case, why do you say we are ultimately responsible and argue against Galen Strawson’s basic argument?

  108. jim p houston

    Hi Tom,

    I remember a scene in Papillion where it is assumed by Louis Dega that, for all his courage, the eponymous hero can’t but be ‘broken’ in solitary and end up giving up Dega’s name to the prison guards. Asked whether he wouldn’t still blame Papillion for this, Dega says ‘blame is for god and children’. I’ve some sympathy for that sentiment.

    I’d agree with Waller that retribution isn’t morally justified but then I don’t think we’ve any scope to call anything ‘morally justified’. The adoption of Dega and Spinoza’s attitude is something I’d personally welcome – and I think many would feel disinclined (in calm moments) to punish for non-consequential reasons if only they looked at things aright. But I don’t know what would warrant calling retribution, as Waller does, ‘unfair’. The notion of fairness is dependent on that of desert.

    And, as the vengeful William Munny says just before he murders the protesting Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven:

    “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

  109. Ah! Perhaps, Stephen, we have inched a few millimeters forward. You at least focus in on my rejection of Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument. And yes, I do indeed hold it to be fallacious. 

    What bothers me most, though, is the constant mention of contra-causality, which as I have said I think is a red herring. And I find it encouraging you didn’t (at least explicitly) bring contra-causality  up again. The contra-causality argument presumes strict determinism and then decries, “Look at this weird mystery! It pushes against all causes in a temporally reverse manner!” To make such an argument you have to assume unique state-to-state transitions are the norm for everything except, supposedly, humans. 

    No such thing is claimed by indeterminism (at least “naturalist” indeterminism). Indeterminism merely holds that there is no reason to assume that a given state can be followed by one and only one type of state. It could be that there is only one possible consequent, but nothing allows us to assume some universal rule that ALL states necessarily have only a single possible consequent and antecedent.

    I have indeed made conjectures similar to Aristotle’s supposed prime matter: that there is some fundamental potential that always remains at some near nothing (there is no void void, or however one can coherently speak about absolutely nothing). But this is little different from so-called quantum vacuums of modern physics.

    As for the Basic Argument, as I have said, the problem I have with it is that ultimacy is absurdly defined to begin with. Strawson conveniently defines it in such a way that we can only think of ultimacy as that what started the domino effect, which he then points out is absurdly distal. And if the domino line is “weirdly” interrupted then we fall into a void. And supposedly we are only interested in perfect orderly reasons when discussing morality. But here, with this mysterious black hole, there is nothing to trace back and hold to account. And hence this tired repetition of “luck swallows everything”.

    My claim is that ultimacy has to be considered the cumulative something we can apprehend and of which we can have any knowledge. We must be sensible rather than rational. I get back to epistemology. As you appear in your fullness before me is the only way I can sensibly deal with you. Not as an infinite collection of “little micro causes”. If you act in a dumb way, then you deserve to be treated as dumb people get treated. And if you act and continue to show propensity to act in a manner detrimental to the rest society, you deserve to be kept separated from society. It’s less (or not at all) about punishment and more about pure pragmatism.

    Now, if you show potential to be a great engineer it’s in our interest to shower you with all the opportunities we can to allow you to fulfill your engineering potential. We know the wealth of a family is no guaranty for talent and that poverty can forge both strength and endurance. It simply behooves society as a whole to provide equal opportunity. Again, pragmatism.

  110. Jim P Houston

    Hi Stephen,

    I don’t see how the fact that Darwin, Einstein, Coyne and Harris reject free will as incompatible with determinism counts as evidence that “folk intuitively start out as libertarians.” But supposing most folk are metaphysical libertarians until they think about it critically (as naturalistic scientists or philosophers) it may be that they are ‘led’ to that initial belief by religious dogma or its intellectual ‘hangover’ rather than intuition alone. So I suppose what I’m wondering is just how many of the ‘folk’ are metaphysical libertarians and why. I think we may need more research to establish the answers to both questions.

  111. Hi Jim,

    ” [...] supposing most folk are metaphysical libertarians until they think about it critically [...]”

    I suppose, since Stephen has branded me with the scarlet L of libertarianism, I must not have thought much or very critically about it. :smile:

  112. Jim P Houston

    Andreas,

    I’m quite sure you have thought about it seriously and critically. Our conversations began with Bertie Russell, Coplestone, determinism and freewill and you’ve talked (and obviously thought) about all that frequently since.

    Truth be told, I have never been able to work out quite what your position is on these matters. We have, I think some difference in mind-set, background and word-usage and then there is the fact that I’m just not very ‘quick’ when it comes to ‘doing’ philosophy anymore. The old brain has gone somewhat. On the rare occasions I can say something useful it seems to be a matter of recalling things learnt long ago.

  113. Jim P Houston

    ps Andreas

    Is there something that it is like to be an electron? That sounds implausible. Yet Galen Strawson believes this is the best explanation of how things are. Find out why.

    Listen to Galen Strawson on Panpsychism…

    http://philosophybites.com/2012/05/galen-strawson-on-panpsychism.html

  114. Jim,
    I’m sure your brain remains more alert than Jim seems to think. At least that what I deduce from the anecdotal evidence. Feel free to let your brain know what I think.

    As for what I think on the issue of free will and causality, I suppose my main concern is a growing hubris about what we can know, especially concerning what motivates humans to act. When I use the word free, I think of mathematically free variables. Even if we can formulate some equations that predict our behavior somewhat, there always remains postulated variables whose value we have a hard time pinning down through prior observation. The best we can do is wait and see how good our guess was. Will he save the child? Maybe. Let’s see.

    Living beings need that capacity to switch between opaque and transparent. They need to have a fluid motion between being your friend and your foe. They require the “freedom” to mysteriously switch between extremes of this spectrum at a moments notice. As a friend they need to be trustworthy and transparent. As your foe they need to be unreliable and opaque. In my book, it’s evolution, evolution, evolution. Evolution is the most powerful and simple explanation ever conceived.

    People like Sam Harris think they are about to crack the human nut so to say. They might be, but I think this would just lead to further evolution and the reemergence of unpredictability. It’s a goose chase towards eventual stasis somewhere in the infinite distance…

    I hope that gives a little more clarity to my position. But truthfully, sometimes I change my mind (don’t tell anybody). Isn’t that what critical thinking should be about? Oh vey, the pain of uncertainty. :???:

  115. Listen to Galen Strawson on Panpsychism…
    http://philosophybites.com/2012/05/galen-strawson-on-panpsychism.html

    Jim P Houston

    Now there Galen Stawson is making sense! Very clever man…

    I’ve though of myself as leaning toward good old emergentism. But what Strawson says is very interesting and painfully close to what I have said in the past when (ironically) criticizing his Basic Argument:

    We scoff at the notion that a rock has a “mind” and consider humans the only things with a truly free will, a mind. The universe is black or white. Mind is there or mind is not there. Things are determined, or they are not determined. When we free ourselves of this notion (no pun intended), we can begin reclaiming some responsibility for what we do in this world.

    Andreas B. Olsson, 2010

    I guess one should read a person’s ouvre more carefully before laying on the critique… :oops:

  116. Jim P Houston

    Hi Andreas,

    I passed on your optimistic assessment to my brain. It appreciates the sentiment but isn’t convinced.

    Changing your mind is good. I used to frequently change mine in the course of the long thread discussions I used to enter into here. I find the unfaltering certitude that some folk have to be a source of concern. The hubris of others isn’t my problem but I’d prefer to live in a world where people were more susceptible to doubt. I make bold assertions that are full of certitude myself at times but they tend only to demonstrate my ability to say stupid things.

    Glad you found the Strawson interview interesting. I’m not persuaded myself but great philosophers aren’t great because they see the right answers – they’re great because they see the right questions and are willing to boldly go where the arguments lead them.

  117. Stephen Lawrence

    Jim,

    “I don’t see how the fact that Darwin, Einstein, Coyne and Harris reject free will as incompatible with determinism counts as evidence that “folk intuitively start out as libertarians.”

    Simply because these are examples of folk who start out with Libertarian intuitions.

    If we had a bunch of scientists who say they didn’t start out with those intuitions, that would be evidence against.

    But their are few compatibilists except for philosophers who’ve spent time thinking about it.

    And I’m suspicious of many of these. Russell is an interesting case, he says he disbelieves in Libertarian free will and yet in the case of the drowning boy appeared to express belief in it.

    ” But supposing most folk are metaphysical libertarians until they think about it critically (as naturalistic scientists or philosophers) it may be that they are ‘led’ to that initial belief by religious dogma or its intellectual ‘hangover’ rather than intuition alone. ”

    Sure but that dogma is pervasive. The belief that praise and blame can be deserved is the norm and even when one realises the mistake, most of us never fully manage to adjust to the truth, dunno if I will.

    But what I know is it helps me to remind myself that people couldn’t have done otherwise in the actual situation.

    One doesn’t need a religious background to pick up the religious concept of moral desert.

    “So I suppose what I’m wondering is just how many of the ‘folk’ are metaphysical libertarians and why. I think we may need more research to establish the answers to both questions.”

    As you know, I’m not wondering just how many of the folk are metaphysical libertarians. :-)

    But the research would still be good.

    The why is a good question.

    Firstly we need to be clear about exactly what Libertarian free will is.

    It’s CHDO in the actual circumstances (again Russell will not say we couldn’t assuming determinism.)

    But it must be more than that, because otherwise indeterminism would necessarily give us Libertarian free will.

    The more is it gives us freedom and responsibility, we couldn’t have without it.

    There is a third bit, to do with “conscious control” but I think that adds confusion and I tend to just drop it.

    But I believe that comes from not paying careful attention to the experience.

    On CHDO, I think it’s to do with the way we are wired up. We work with a model of opening and closing possibilities. Options are open up to the moment we make the choice.

    We have the strong sense we could have done it up to that moment.

    We don’t think this through and so we have the impression we mean with that same past.

    Why people believe in desert based moral responsibility is trickier.

  118. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “And if you act and continue to show propensity to act in a manner detrimental to the rest society, you deserve to be kept separated from society.”

    What do you mean by deserve? What it means to me is that it’s fair to me that I suffer as a result of my behaviour.

    And this is why it needs pointing out that I was unlucky to have the past I had and that you were lucky to have the past you had.

    Don’t make out it’s fair, that’s wrong and bad.

    ” It’s less (or not at all) about punishment and more about pure pragmatism.”

    Right, so drop desert and free will and just say We need to do this for practical reasons, it’s the lesser of two evils.

  119. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen,

    “The second point is it seems it was possible for the moon not to go on that path.”

    On determinism, if the moon did go on that path then is was not possible for it not to go on that path. That’s the very point of determinism.

    My argument was about meaning. Let me suggest the following propositions:

    A1. The atmosphere’s ozone layer protects people from getting skin cancer.
    A2. The falling of the apple decreases its potential energy.
    A3. Accurately striking the hour makes the cuckoo clock useful to its owners.

    B1. The atmosphere should have an ozone layer in order to protect people from getting skin cancer.
    B2. The apple should fall in order to decrease its potential energy.
    B3. The cuckoo clock should accurately strike the hour in order to be useful to its owners.

    I submit that A1-A3 are perfectly meaningful (and true) propositions.

    I submit that B1 and B2 are meaningless, but that B3 is meaningful (but not an ethical proposition, see bellow). The reason that B3 is meaningful even though it refers to a mechanical system is the fact that this mechanical system (the cuckoo clock) was built for a purpose. Since on naturalism all reality is mechanical and devoid of purposeful design, ethical language has no meaning.

    The naturalist may try to wiggle her way out arguing in the following manner: Human relations are a “purposefully built machine” and therefore propositions of the type “if you want to enjoy the company of other people you should not criticize them all the time” make perfect sense. But observe that this proposition is not an ethical proposition (despite its inclusion of a “should”). It simply describes a factual property of a mechanical system. Similarly the proposition “if you want to heat this water you should put it on the stove” is not an ethical proposition. The question at hand is whether ethical language has meaning on naturalism, and it seems it doesn’t. Incidentally many naturalists (e.g. Mackie) agree. My point is that a human life in which ethical propositions carry no meaning is rendered absurd.

    Of course a naturalist may try to solve this problem by changing the meaning of ethical language, but I hope it is clear that trying to solve problems by changing the meaning of words is a fool’s errand.

    Finally observe that the above does not require determinism, but only a mechanistic (even if indeterministic) reality. Therefore, ejecting determinism (which given modern science is for all practical purposes known to be false anyway) does not solve naturalism’s absurdity.

  120. Stephen, it is simply not true that I expressed belief (or even appeared to express it) in libertarian free will when I discussed the drowning child case. I said nothing remotely like that.

    I said that the person who failed to save the child may well have been able to act otherwise in the ordinary sense of “able” or “can” of having the required skills, equipment, proximity, etc.

    I imagined a case in which someone fails to save the child, not because of lack of ability in the ordinary sense but because he is simply not fond of children or doesn’t want to get wet, or whatever. I.e. his choice not to save the child is a product of his desires, psychological predispositions of character, etc. He declined to save the child because, in the circumstance, he didn’t want to. That is not libertarian free will. It is fully consistent with determinism: there can be a causal story as to how the person came to have those desires and dispositions – i.e., genetics, parental upbringing, socialisation, etc. – and the elements in that narrative can all be, at another level of description, entirely physical events.

    The fact that you could confuse anything I said in any of the recent discussions with an affirmation of libertarian free will just shows how philosophers are not “changing the subject” in making these kinds of points and distinctions. It seems that at least some people can hear or read something that in no way supports libertarian free will as if it does support libertarian free will or something of the kind. You and others are confused when you do so, and it is the job of philosophers to try to tease out these very sorts of confusions.

    I’m sure that there are pressures towards this sort of confusion, and hinted at something similar near the end of the ABC piece (though I’m also sure that there are also pressures towards some kind of crypto-compatibilism and others towards fatalism … various aspects of our experience can seem to support all of these).

    In particular, it may be easy to think that because you can (often) act in accordance with your desires, etc., and that there is no single pervasive impediment to your doing so, that you have libertarian free will, or something like it. But that’s forgetting that your desires, etc., themselves – and indeed you, yourself – have a causal history. Your ability to act in accordance with your desires, etc., in no way negates causal determinism.

    But it’s not as if philosophical reflection on these aspects of our experience is new. It goes all the way back at least as far as early Hellenistic times, arguably even further.

  121. “it may be that they are ‘led’ to that initial belief by religious dogma or its intellectual ‘hangover’ rather than intuition alone. ”
    I think the word “intuition” is too weak. It’s not intuition, it’s perception, how we perceive ourselves and others.
    Tell a child that this other child who jut stole his marbles “could not have done otherwise”, and watch him stare at you with incomprehension and disbelief.
    We naturally perceive ourselves as the uncaused causers of our thoughts and actions, and that’s consequently a spontaneous, integral part of our theory of mind (and that’s why Libet and his children’s work are causing such a steer, and why Harris is selling so many books…)
    I’d be very interested by counter-examples.

  122. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Russell:

    ”I imagined a case in which someone fails to save the child, not because of lack of ability in the ordinary sense but because he is simply not fond of children or doesn’t want to get wet, or whatever. I.e. his choice not to save the child is a product of his desires, psychological predispositions of character, etc.”

    But as a matter of how factually the human condition is, when faced with a choice of high moral significance it is *not* the case that we choose based on what abilities we have or what our desires or psychological predispositions are. That is not at all how the freedom of our will is experienced (even though of course we experience all of the things you mention goading us one way or other). By describing free will in terms which do not comport with how we experience free will, I think you fail to address free will.

  123. Stephen Lawrence

    “Stephen, it is simply not true that I expressed belief (or even appeared to express it) in libertarian free will when I discussed the drowning child case. I said nothing remotely like that.”

    Here is one of many quotes that suggest otherwise:

    “There is nothing in the deterministic picture, or in the fact that there is some kind of causal history as to how I come to have the desire-set that I do, that removes the fact that I can act otherwise in a particular moment as (for example) I sit by idly and watch a child drown. If I have the resources, etc., all that is required for me to save the child is that I want to. ”

    This is simply false Russell.

    Stephen

  124. Desert, Stephen, is the pudding you get when you’ve eaten your peas. 

    First, there should be no question when considering animal behavior that state transitions show regularities and irregularities. With other words, our actions have predictable and unpredictable consequences. It would be crazy to say otherwise.

    Now, when we are dealing with morality, we are dealing with the ability of an observer intervening and affecting state transitions.  Someone observes Person A acting (or not) in some way. The Observer has expectations of how Person A should have acted. That is to say what the state transitions should have been like had the Observer (or some idealized person) been Person A.

     If Person A does not act as expected, the Observer can select to intervene. They don’t have to,  but the possibility is there. Asking the question “should I or should I not  intervene” begins the process of selecting a desert. What consequence should the Observer (now an active agent) cause to occur because Person A failed to act according to expectations? What is appropriate given the observed behavior?

    You can call it what you want. I think desert is a perfectly good word. Saying that Person A deserves something is merely claiming that we have a right or obligation to intervene and cause specific state transitions that will affect Person A. It really is the pudding we get if we eat our peas. And someone has to serve up the pudding. 

    It’s different from the more predictable consequences that occur when manipulating “inanimate” stuff. Although, if something happens to Person A in the process of such manipulation that is sufficiently similar to what the Observer would have been inclined to cause to happen given the circumstances, we could also talk of desert. Say a terrorist blows themselves up while preparing a bomb. We no longer have to consider isolating the terrorist from society. The terrorist themself has permanently ensured they will do no more harm, which is what we would have wanted to ensure.

    Importantly, the Observer could select not to become involved. Is the act deserving of my attention? This is justice – an appropriate human act in response to another human act. Well, that is unless we live in Stephen’s Strictly Deterministic Universe where selection is a meaningless word and justice an empty concept.

    [...] drop desert and free will and just say We need to do this for practical reasons, it’s the lesser of two evils.

    Stephen Lawrence

    Really? I’m not sure. I’m concerned that strict determinists don’t have an adequate sense of epistemic limits to remain properly pragmatic. Besides that I see no ontological reason for dropping the term free will (there will always be free variables in our behavioral equations), a fervent disbelief in free will coaxes you to falsely believe you can know almost anything (i.e. that all the free variables can be fixed or turned into constants). And, besides, the potential for a desert is a good reminder to eat your peas.

    What is it you are concerned with? For the Judge (i.e. the observer become agent) to cause excessively harsh consequences? That the Judge will feed you nails for desert and just cause further unnecessary suffering that doesn’t promote a constructive and life affirming state of affairs? But this is why we have a jurisprudence guided by laws like the U.S’s Eight amendment:

    Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

    8′th Amendment, U.S. Consititution

    The idea that we can better understand people than themselves and know for sure how to fix them is far more dangerous! I get back here to my extreme national union. We must assume that the majority of people know best how to fix themselves. And if they don’t, we have to assume there is currently no way of fixing them. The type of determinism Sam Harris believes in (and apparently you) does not promote sufficient epistemological modesty.

    The best we can do is demand that people try and fix themselves (or that they request that they be fixed based on someone else’s opinion). Or else remain incarcerated and kept apart from society until such attempts are made. If you’ve ever had a medical issue, even a minor one, you should know that most statements of causality in this domain are a patchwork of diagnostic guesses. Which is why I’m seriously warning against the hubris of Sam Harris and his (f)MRI’s. It’s not the first time someone declares the imminent Triumph of Medicine. Unlike what Steve seems to think, this is serious stuff and not just the pointless banter of eggheads.

    As an aside, since it is a conceivable, the idea of not ever intervening at all when people act in certain ways (leaving each other alone) is anathema to the social and cooperatively productive beings we are. Politically, this would be akin to anarchy (though strictly speaking not any type of government since society would not really exist as such). There needs to be some type of balance between intervention and autonomy.

    So, what concretely would you replace something like the Eight Amendment with so that it would fit better with your intuition that desert does not go well with a deterministic universe? Perhaps replacing the “punishments imposed” with something like “consequences inflicted” (which I would still not hesitate to call desert)? But this I suspect is just a form of double-speak. Whatever our Judge decides, it will  most likely amount to eating raw code liver oil for Person A.

    I’m serious, suggest some more appropriate wording to guide sentencing in a strictly deterministic world where imperfect justice has been entirely replaced by good engineering. 

  125. stephen lawrence

    Andreas,

    “You can call it what you want. I think desert is a perfectly good word. Saying that Person A deserves something is merely claiming that we have a right or obligation to intervene and cause specific state transitions that will affect Person A.”

    The only problem with that is it isn’t true.

    Stephen

  126. stephen lawrence

    Dianelos,

    “On determinism, if the moon did go on that path then is was not possible for it not to go on that path. That’s the very point of determinism.”

    But you also believe it prevented something that could have happened.

    How could the sun’s light have reached the earth???

  127. Stephen Lawrence

    Jim,

    “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

    Right.

    But the problem is belief in deserved, praise blame, guilt, reward and so on.

    You seem to be saying that the belief these things are deserved is benign.

  128. The only problem with [saying that we have a right or obligation to intervene and cause specific state transitions] is that it isn’t true.

    Stephen Lawrence

    :shock: Huh? Are you saying it isn’t true we have a right or obligation or are you saying we can’t even (say mechanically) cause things to happen? So now it isn’t just that we don’t have free will. Now we either don’t have a right to meddle in anybody else’s business regardless of what they do or we can’t even have any effect on the world around us. Or even both maybe. Oh my are we powerless in you world. No wonder free will is such a completely useless expression to you.

    Do we even exist in Stephen’s Strictly Deterministic Universe? And if yes what the heck are we?

  129. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    Once again, people’s experiences vary. I think that you’re generalizing from yours or from those around you.

    If another child had taken my toys when I was a child and I had been told that he or she “could not have done otherwise”, I would have accepted it as a plausible explanation.

    As a child, I saw the world as one of forces, of power, in which stronger children, my parents, my teachers exerted their power over me, without any particular moral explanation or justification.

    I did not see those with power as guided by any special ethical motives, be they good or bad, or worthy of praise or blame, just as powerful. Likewise, I saw the weak, including myself, as simply weak.

    I only bought into ethics much later in life and I’ve never wholly bought into it.

    In fact, in my experience observing them, small children are often amoral and see the world as an amoral place.

  130. Stephen says, quoting me:

    Here is one of many quotes that suggest otherwise:

    “There is nothing in the deterministic picture, or in the fact that there is some kind of causal history as to how I come to have the desire-set that I do, that removes the fact that I can act otherwise in a particular moment as (for example) I sit by idly and watch a child drown. If I have the resources, etc., all that is required for me to save the child is that I want to. ”

    This is simply false Russell.

    But the thing is that what I wrote is not simply false. On the contrary, it is simply true.

    We are often in situations where we have whatever equipment, skills, etc., are required to act in a certain way. However, we act in a different way because that’s what we want to do. And this is wholly consistent with determinism (what I want to do has a causal history). It is not in any way a claim that we have libertarian free will.

    Even Sam Harris concedes this much. He thinks it’s “changing the subject”, but he doesn’t deny that it’s true.

    Stephen, if you think we don’t even have the general ability to act on our desires, etc., in causally efficacious ways, though within certain constraints (such as our resources, equipment, and skills), you are supporting out and out fatalism.

    Which kind of makes a couple of points. There is a tendency for many people to be fatalists, and to deny free will not just on the ground that our desires, etc., are causally determined, but on some stronger and more fatalistic basis. Those us who think it important to deny both fatalism and libertarianism are not “changing the subject” – this has always been “the subject”.

  131. amos:
    Would you agree that:
    - “the subjective sense of agency, that is, the feeling that we control our own movements and actions, is certainly an essential, constant element of our everyday experience. It seems obvious to us that the causal chain leading to the execution of an action critically derives from our conscious intention”.
    or that
    - we have a “strong natural tendency to judge freedom as an essential and evident component of our experience of acting.”
    And that therefore,
    - we naturally project this inner experience onto others and assume that they too, have these same feelings and tendencies?

  132. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    I have no idea what we or even I have a “strong natural tendency” to judge. What is “natural” is not so clear to me.

    As I’ve grown older, I’ve developped a stronger sense of agency and a stronger tendency to speculate and about attribute states of minds to others, which may be projection and may be empathy and probably is a bit of both.

    I really cannot say what is nature and what is nuture in this situation. In the second case, that of empathy/projection, there was a lot of conscious learning there: as a child, I was not particularly interested in what went on in the minds of others and I began to become interested, very interested, because, to be frank, I learned that I’m not especially attractive to women and that I had to make an extra effort and to study them in order to develop good relationships.

    I would say that I began to have a sense of agency when I saw that I could successfully deal with others, negotiate with them, bargain,
    win arguments, convince others, and that was fairly late in life, well into early adulthood (in my early 20′s)). So that was learned too.

  133. “I would say that I began to have a sense of agency [...] (in my early 20′s)).”
    Really? Before your early 20s, you felt that you were not the author of your thoughts and actions? And you didn’t represent others around you as being free agents?

  134. swallerstein (amos)

    Steve:

    Memory is tricky, but as far as I recall, I basically saw others as forces, as powerful or not powerful and saw myself as powerless, weak.

    That is, I was not particularly concerned about or did not focus on conscious agency or motives, although yes, there was a sense of agency in the sense that actions came from someone. I had little sense of motives and even less of so-called ethical responsibility.

    However, I tend to think that I learned to see others as conscious agents as a part of the process of learning how to be “normal”. As I learned to become “normal”, I tended to adopt “normal” viewpoints, in order to be “normal”, not because I believed that they were correct or accurate.

    At that time of my life, my project was to be more “normal”, not to be right.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve relaxed and become less “normal” once again.

    Sorry, Steve, but in philosophy blogs, you meet all kinds of weird folk.

    In any case, how we learn to “think” is an interesting question. I have to leave this discussion for the moment, but will continue tomorrow if you wish.

  135. jim p houston

    ‘You seem to be saying that the belief [that] these things are deserved is benign.’

    Stephen,

    I don’t know why it would seem that way but then I can be rather gnomic (and, more frequently, plain confused).

    By ‘benign’ I presume you mean ‘harmless’ and, without using moral talk, I think one can still reasonably say that the belief that retribution is ‘deserved’ causes harm (assuming that the belief that retribution is deserved helps cause us to have and act on wrathful desires).

    I’m just sceptical (and sometimes ‘unfairly’ dismissive) of the idea that naturalists can profitably employ ‘moral talk’ however harmful a practice or outcome may be.

  136. Stephen Lawrence

    Russell,

    “Stephen says, quoting me:

    Here is one of many quotes that suggest otherwise:

    “There is nothing in the deterministic picture, or in the fact that there is some kind of causal history as to how I come to have the desire-set that I do, that removes the fact that I can act otherwise in a particular moment as (for example) I sit by idly and watch a child drown. If I have the resources, etc., all that is required for me to save the child is that I want to. ”

    This is simply false Russell.

    But the thing is that what I wrote is not simply false. On the contrary, it is simply true.”

    The fact is a different want is not all that is required because that is physically impossible.

    So sorry but it is simply false and this is the crux of the matter, which is why the point needs labouring.

    Given the past and the laws of nature the different want could not arise.

    Therefore in order to have the different want the man would have needed a different past.

    So what is required is:

    1) A different want.

    2) A slightly and appropriately different past that would produce the different want.

    This is what the people who are saying we could not have done otherwise are saying to you.

    Jerry Coyne being one of them.

    He says yes, the man could have saved the drowning boy if he had wanted to.

    But (paraphrasing) in order to have wanted to he would have needed to have been in a different universe. (I would call it the same universe with a different past)

    Jerry and Sam are correct on this point.

    Compatibilists such as Daniel Dennett agree.

    By apparently disagreeing, you give the impression of belief in Libertarian free will.

  137. Stephen Lawrence

    “By ‘benign’ I presume you mean ‘harmless’ and, without using moral talk, I think one can still reasonably say that the belief that retribution is ‘deserved’ causes harm (assuming that the belief that retribution is deserved helps cause us to have and act on wrathful desires).”

    Cool.

    This is what Sam Harris is saying Jim.

    Often, thoughts move to the justice system but I think this tends to miss a much more important point.

    In every family, every society etc etc, this is going on between individuals minute to minute.

    A way of putting the problem is that it often makes praise and blame, guilt etc, dysfunctional rather than functional.

    Which, if so, is far from a minor problem.

    This is in contrast to the general compatibilist idea, which is, no we don’t have libertarian free will but it doesn’t make much difference.

  138. Given the past and the laws of nature the different want could not arise.

    Stephen Lawrence

    I know that the statement above should read “if deteminism is true”. But you have amply shown how strictly deterministic you believe the universe is. So I have to ask what makes you so convinced that it’s worth laboring so hard to prove your points on the issue.

    Where do you get your certitudes from, Stephen? Tell me what these Laws are that you continue to reference. I think I could generate us quite a bit of money from them. You make a lot of categorical statements about how the Universe must function that just don’t jell with neither my experience nor my knowledge of what experts in their fields have reliably concluded. It could be that I’m simply not clever enough and that my limited knowledge is insufficient to follow you. But understandably I’m reluctant to conclude that.

    I’d be curious to know what you do for a profession. Not that it ultimately matters to whether you are right or wrong. But knowing someone’s framework can help people understand the other’s terms and what informs the analogies that they use.

    I’m a software engineer who specializes in ontologies and semantic data. I essentially try to get electronic systems to “understand” digital information and build virtual models of organizations. I have more than a decade of experience in this specific sub-field.  It’s the difficulty of getting clearly deterministic and purely logical systems to behave as intelligently as people (who can look at a piece of information and quickly make sense of it or easily change their mind if they turned out to be wrong) that informs my intuitions about how our consciousness might operate.

    I’m not a neuroscientist so my knowledge is at best somewhat informed about the tofu-like substance that appears to be at the core of consciousness. But what I do is in fact attempt to replicate consciousness in a non-biological substrate. And to do that it seems to me, at this stage, that the way to go is an evolving stochastic system. That is to say a system that makes random guesses and then evaluates the result of these guesses against some given criteria of “goodness”.

    This cannot be said to be a deterministic approach. Of course, all the processes at the base of our current electronic systems are deterministic. But we constantly try to bypass that with so-called Pseudo Random Generators. And, after all, it has to be said that computer engineers and scientists have yet to create what could clearly by called a “spark of consciousness”. 

    There is a lot of highly experimental work in quantum computing. If that ends up being the solution to better AI (even if it ends up still not being on par with human cognitive abilities), then I suspect it will force philosophers to reconsider their predominantly anti-libertarian views. And by the way, it isn’t like there is one single libertarian school of thought. And the term has been so abused by its critics that it now conjures a mere pastiche of supposed folk psychology.

    If you have to put me in a drawer, then call me a Stochastic. And then prove to me why it’s impossible that fundamental fluctuating randomness evaluated against pseudo-constant criteria cannot possibly be the way the Universe operates. This is the way I intuit that the world works. And therefore any moral theory must according to me be compatible with indeterminism – or more precisely, with a stochastic system with animistic choice at its core.

  139. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    See my response on may 5th 1.26am to why I believe determinism is true and how certain I am.

    “So I have to ask what makes you so convinced that it’s worth laboring so hard to prove your points on the issue.”

    The conviction is not that determinism is true as I’ve said a number of times.

    It’s that freedom and responsibility must be compatible with determinism.

    And that conviction comes from realising that indeterminism cannot over come the luck of determinism.

    So “luck swallows everything” either way.

    The truth ot otherwise of determinism has nothing to do with it, as Galen Strawson says.

    This is the same reason that most philosophers are compatibilists.

    It’s not that they believe the world is deterministic, it’s that Libertarian free will is apparently impossible.

  140. Stephen Lawrence

    In response to your post yesterday Andreas what isn’t true is that:

    A) “Saying that Person A deserves something”

    And

    B) is merely claiming that we have a right or obligation to intervene and cause specific state transitions that will affect Person A.”

    Are the same thing.

  141. So your claim, Stephen, was just that I’m using the word desert itself incorrectly? Well, your understanding of what desert means smells of John Rawls. And it’s Rawls who insisted on defining it in an absurd way.

    Rawlsian definitions of desert end up denying personal identity as a legitimate concept. It cannot hold, because the capacity to encapsulate phenomena into units that we can manipulate, compare and control is fundamental to our being in the Universe. Without reification and ownership everything collapses into a meaningless Nausea and we might as well stop philosophizing or accounting for anything and holding anyone to account.

    Note that desert is not a word used much outside of moral philosophy unless it refers to a barren landscape. And in everyday language “Jake said John deserves apples” does usually not mean some complex statement about John’s origins, dispositions and capacity to have done otherwise. It simple means something like “John helped trim trees in Jake’s orchard so Jake rewarded John with a bushel of apples”. 

    You could deny that Jake has a right to own the orchard, and therefor had no right to decide whether John should get any apples. But assuming Jake can legitimately own property, then Jake has a right to decide whether John deserves apples based on John’s behavior. Jake can reward John for whatever he feels, as long as what he rewards John with is something Jake can legitimately claim full control of (i.e. which he has ownership of). And others can criticize Jake for not adequately compensating John, or praise him for his generosity. We can argue about what John deserved based on his actions.

  142. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “So your claim, Stephen, was just that I’m using the word desert itself incorrectly?”

    It’s not what you or anyone else mean by it when you actually use it.

    People believe in consequential reasons for rewarding or penalising behaviour. And desert.

    Belief in desert is the denial that it’s a lottery and the affirmation that people can deserve their position in the lottery. I.e it can be fair that some get to suffer and some get the rewards. And this is because they have a choice, rather than are victims of their past.

    That’s the myth.

    If it wasn’t why on earth defend free will when all you really need to say is there are practical reasons for doing it?

    Stephen

  143. Obviously, just like Sam Harris, you want us to eliminate the use of the words free will and even desert to effectuate a proper change in attitude. And the main change you seem to desire is a more compassionate attitude (even towards child molesters), accounting for people’s inability to control their circumstances. Your approach can only be described as victimization. It is based on the idea that people are unable to change themselves and that therefore they have to be rehabilitated by someone else, us. It should be obvious that this is a paradoxical position to hold.

    You can’t have the cake and eat the cake. If we don’t deserve anything because nothing is of our doing, then surely no one deserve to be awarded greater prosperity than anyone else either. Property is theft and should be eliminated, no? And the only possibilities are either anarchy (no one owns anything) or extreme egalitarianism (everyone owns everything). From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

    Is this what you seek? Not pragmatic enough? So what shall we do then? We still have to remember: no one deserves anything! If ownership is a necessary condition for a stable society, then how shall we regulate it? We have to leave it up to the State. What other option do we have? The State has to have absolute power over property, otherwise how could it rectify the injustice of people not properly using what they never really deserved? The State must be able to assign and reassign control to those who can best use it. 

    Essentially, the State must be all powerful but refrain from using its power when not necessary. As long as Manager X runs a smooth ship all is good. But if the ship cannot maintain steam the State must, in the interest of all, be able to remove Manager X and confiscate their means of exercising power. Calling what Manager X has property would be most disingenuous. Perhaps a conditional lease is better. 

    If you think we can eliminate the idea of free will and desert and not cause profound effect on how we view justice beyond just this supposed “mean social myth” of excessive punitive measures, I suspect you are sorely, sorely mistaken. 

  144. Andreas,

    Pointing out the bad consequences of abandoning the notion of desert doesn’t establish that desert exists, and that these consequences might come to pass if we did abandon it is an empirical, very open question. There are many other grounds for resisting oppressive control that will prevent your worries from coming to pass. Here’s a footnote in a recent review of Bruce Waller’s book Against Moral Responsibility at http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm :

    Compatibilists think that moral desert is essential to our well-being. For instance, giving people only what they deserve (no more, no less) is the necessary basis for proportionality in punishment, an essential check against consequentialist excess, for instance imposing draconian penalties for minor offenses. And only desert, they say, can supply the basis for treating each other as autonomous agents, as ends in ourselves, not mere objects of manipulation. But the existence of desert has to first be established before it can play such roles. Since it doesn’t seem to exist, consequentialists must offer alternative bases for proportionality and respecting human rights, and they can. Proportionality derives from what’s necessary for deterrence combined with the humanistic principle of minimizing harm, and our rights to autonomy are, for progressive naturalists, simply among the central values we seek to protect and maximize when considering consequences, see http://www.naturalism.org/morse.htm#autonomy

    You write to Stephen: “Your approach can only be described as victimization. It is based on the idea that people are unable to change themselves and that therefore they have to be rehabilitated by someone else, us. It should be obvious that this is a paradoxical position to hold.”

    Not so. People can of course change themselves using their own resources, and do all the time, even if determinism is true, see http://www.naturalism.org/Weight_Loss_Naturalism.htm And there’s no implication from determinism to authoritarian control since the desire for personal liberty still has a claim on us, based not on metaphysical desert but on what we all want, see http://www.naturalism.org/maximizing_liberty.htm#liberty

    More about the connection between naturalism and progressive policies that preserve the open society is at http://www.naturalism.org/politics.htm

  145. Tom,
    A few initial, reactions. I have to fully agree that just because something has bad consequences doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I’d be rather foolish to say otherwise. My point to Stephen was that he is being Polyannish to think changing our view on free will and desert is not bound to have deep impact far beyond how we punish some criminals and treat our incorrigible pesky uncles. As I have said, if determinism is true then so be it. We will have to deal with it. But, since it is bound to have profound consequences, we better make sure it really definitively is true. We should not base our assumptions on tea kettles boiling in Stephen’s kitchen.

    Secondly, Sam Harris – and from what I can tell, Stephen as well – are not arguing for a compatibilist view. There has been a lot of insistence from Stephen about how Russell’s Could/Would Argument makes no sense. I started off in this whole disussion by mentioning how I thought Russell’s point was an intriguing idea that might give some further credence to the compatibilist position. Stephen will have none of it and isists that it’s worth belaboring that neither Person A’s  nor Person B’s wants could ever have been any different. Therefore what they could have done is what they would have done.

    Note that he uses the word victim himself:

    Belief in desert is the denial that it’s a lottery and the affirmation that people can deserve their position in the lottery. I.e it can be fair that some get to suffer and some get the rewards. And this is because they have a choice, rather than are victims of their past.

    Stephen Lawrence
    p.s. My bolding.

    If he is right that “luck swallows everything”, then what can I say. We can just hope that there is still a sensible notion that represents what desert intends. Because we do get into all kinds of twisted strangeness if desert is an empty concept, far more than with free will. If desert looses its tasty panache, I think we will be in for tumultuous social upheaval. It wouldn’t be the first time ideas wreck havoc on the world.

  146. We know we will die but we make every effort to live in the meantime. Although our lives are objectively meaningless, we seek and find solace in their subjective meanings. We are experts at fooling ourselves because that’s how we’re built. If it is proven beyond doubt that we are mere deluded automatons (Dennetian or otherwise, I see zero difference), we will go on fooling ourselves. Because we can’t step outside ourselves and overcome our delusions.
    At this very instant, listening to the more peaceful parts of Parsifal, I couldn’t care less what I am or who I am. The experience and emotion are real. Time, determinism, automatons and death cannot and will not take anything away from this moment.
    And from the powerful and irrepressible intuition that music or other artforms can sometimes awaken: that there’s more to the story.

  147. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “As I have said, if determinism is true then so be it. We will have to deal with it. But, since it is bound to have profound consequences, we better make sure it really definitively is true.”

    No, because indeterminism doesn’t overcome the luck of determinism.

    So we don’t need to know.

    “Secondly, Sam Harris – and from what I can tell, Stephen as well – are not arguing for a compatibilist view.”

    We believe in compatibilist freedom.

    But the 100% luck of needing the right past to make the right choice remains unaffected by it.

    And so it’s a different subject.

    “There has been a lot of insistence from Stephen about how Russell’s Could/Would Argument makes no sense.”

    Which is correct, what Russell is saying is plainly false as it stands.

    And it looks like because of this falsehood he is not getting the problem.

    ” I started off in this whole disussion by mentioning how I thought Russell’s point was an intriguing idea that might give some further credence to the compatibilist position. Stephen will have none of it and isists that it’s worth belaboring that neither Person A’s nor Person B’s wants could ever have been any different.”

    Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo. :smile:

    I’m belabouring the point, and I need to because it’s the crux of the matter, that yes we could have had different wants, but in order to do so the distant past would have needed to be slightly and appropriately different.

    Of course we are lucky or unlucky that is wasn’t.

    Talking about different wants with the same past, as Russell is, and I’ve done a lot of checking to be sure, is indeterminism and also looks like belief in libertarian free will.

    “Therefore what they could have done is what they would have done.”

    No, They could have selected numerous other options, just not with the past they had.

    “Note that he uses the word victim himself”

    Yes I did. It’s not a helpful word. But yes many people have a distant past that will lead to bad choices and if that past had been different they would be going to make good choices.

    And yes I think it’s true we are victims of that luck.

    But better just to say it is 100% luck in this important sense, which means we can’t deserve consequences of choices.

  148. But Stephen, how could their wants ever have been different if the past cannot be different? That’s the point of the Basic Argument. If indeterminism is true, game over. If determinism is true – if every event has only one possible antecedent and one possible consequent – how can anything ever have been different, including wants? So, game over as well*. Or more accurately, the game never got started because of infinite regress.

    Sam Harris states very clearly:

    Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings

    Sam Harris, 2012 (Free Will, Free Press, pp.20)

    Puppets! Frankly, even speaking of wants is bizarre here. You are a leaf tossed in the wind. And frankly, I don’t even understand what you mean by you when you make your assertions. How can there even be a victim? The self has mysteriously vanished in the maelstrom of forces. Please explain to this poor man what I am.  At least Arthur Schopenhauer granted that the self must be something like the will to live and Friedrich Nietzsche the more assertive will to power.

    If Person A has want w at t0, does Person A at least have the capacity to change to want v at t1? And is it not reasonable to say that Person A must have capabilities {x,y,z} to effectuate v regardless of whether Person A enters state v at t0, t1, t2 or any other time?

    If your point is just that at a specific absolute fraction of an instant of a moment’s moment – that is at hypothetical point t0 – Person A could only have done what happened at t0, then I think it’s a rather silly point to make. These hypothetical divisions of time are rather flimsy to begin with. We all now that time is more complex than Newton thought. And how we understand t0 in these discussions is rather vague and variable in range. It’s more accurately a period and not a point in time.

    So there is a period of time during which Person A has the opportunity to self-determine by the capacities stored in their body how to act. Granted, to go from want w to v, Person A may need another set of capabilities {a,b,c}. That is they must have the will to change. And here is where I think there is a chink in Schopenhauer’s claim that you cannot will what you will. No, not at point t0 by simultaneously somehow being behind your self. But you can desire a change in will at t0, resulting in a new will at t1 or t2.

    Is it not fair to expect a human to have basic capabilities {a,b,c}? That is to say is it not fair to expect people to have the capacity to change their attitude when we legitimately demand that they do? And if they don’t have basic cababilities {a,b,c}, why do you expect us to feel so much chagrin for them and have so much forgiveness? I think it must be assumed that there is some basic capability {e} (call it the ur-capacity) in almost all people by which {a,b,c} can be acquired. {e} is (near) universal.

    For Person A to save the child we need [v,{x,y,z}] at t1. If instead we have [w,{x,y,z}] then the child drowns. Saying Person A could have is just saying that the condition {x,y,z} was satisfied. It’s an important observation since it becomes trivial whether Person A was in state w or v if {x,y,z} is not satisfied. Let’s say that instead we had [v,{x}] then Person A could NOT have saved the child despite being in state v (i.e. wanting to save the child).

    We reasonably expect people to be able to change their wants when they are detrimental to society. Is it true that some can’t? Sure. But it is a minority! If the stakes are high enough people will usually change despite recurring claims about how difficult it is to stop eating too much cake. Even the worse addictions can be overcome. And my experience is that it’s usually only done once a person changes internally from state w to v. Any external attempt at forcing a change are usually quite futile.
     
    —————————————-

    * But only, as I have said several times, because of Strawson’s absurd definition of ultimate responsibility.

  149. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “But Stephen, how could their wants ever have been different if the past cannot be different?”

    Because the past could have been different.

    I think the thing to realise is the dependent relationship between causes and effects.

    Dependent means contingent and contingent means could be otherwise or not at all.

    Every cause and effect is contingent and therefore could be otherwise.

    The metaphysical sense in which we could have done otherwise is the same for us as it is for the moon or a chess computer.

    Take this example:

    If the sand had not have been so hot it would not have burnt my toe.

    Here I’m saying:

    1) The sand could have been cooler.

    2) If it was my toe would not have got burnt.

    3) The sand being hot made a difference between whether my toe got burnt or not.

    Which is the same as saying.

    4) The sand being hot caused my toe to burn.

    What I’m not doing here is imagining the sand could have been indeterministically cooler!

    I’m not thinking that given it’s past and surrounding circumstances, it could have been cooler.

    How could it have been cooler? If it had been earlier in the morning, or later in the afternoon. Or if it had been more cloudy. Or….

    The point is there are always ifs… and we recognise this when dealing with sand.

    But go astray when thinking about ourselves.

    And this is what Russell is doing. He wouldn’t say all that was required was for the sand to be cooler because he’d realise immediately that wasn’t true.

    But he slips when he says all that was required was a different want.

    And that slip is at the heart of belief in Libertarian free will.

    No more time now but we can change wants, in the same way as flood barriers can change the behaviour of the river thames.

    That’s compatible with determinism.

    And if you think not that’s the place to start.

    Let’s think about if flood barriers can influence the river thames in a deterministic universe.

    If you think they can there will be no problem.

    If you think they can’t why the focus on human choice making?

    Why don’t you say indeterminism must be true or else the thames barrier could not influence the river thames?

    Stephen

  150. Stephen, you forget who built those barriers: humans. Honestly though, I don’t understand your example. If indeterminism holds, then it holds for everything. Again you are misunderstanding indeterminism. No one said that anything can happen to anything with equal likelihood. Animals are less predictable than a rock. And no one said somethings are completely unaffected by anything (i.e. that we are completely unconstrained). That would be crazy. 

    I sense that you think we are like the moon, but the moon is not like us. You balk at the idea of the moon having even the faintest trace of awareness, desire or intent. But you are perfectly happy to pretty much eliminate every trace of it in us and thereby rendering us de facto as powerless as a rock. We are not like the moon. Are you a massive satellite orbiting a planet since a few billion years?

    Life seems to be more ubiquitous than we thought only a few decades ago. Extremophile bacteria survive in the most “hostile” environments. And life is fundamentally unpredictable and self-determining. Bacteria don’t swim around because they are being struck by cosmic rays all the time. Yes, they need an external energy source. But it is processes  internal to the bacteria that convert this energy into movement. The animated part that makes us alive comes from within.

    Why do you think of everything as external? That is what you are doing. In your view, things cause other things to happen. But what causes the causing? This is why your perspective is more theistic. The Uncaused Cause is external to the sensible world. If you instead think of everything as pushing against everything else with varying degrees of fluctuating power, then everything can potentially have effect on everything else. This is very close to Friedrich Nietzsche’s will to power. You don’t have to postulate some external force outside of space-time. This view is more “naturalistic” because it’s far closer to how nature seems to work. Which is filled with life.

    Your view of the world is a hangup from the 17′th century when mechanical clocks were the hot technology of the day. You imagine everything as little invisible gears cranked by a pendulum set in motion by a human hand. God? It’s no wonder that the rational idealists thought like this (although Leibniz does seem to have been a strange exception). I quote Rodney Brooks, co-founder of the company of iRobot:

    When I was a kid, growing up in Australia, I had a book which said that the human brain is a telephone switching network – this was from the 50′ies – which was made out of relays. You know, mechanical switches and stuff. And not too many years ago I was giving a talk and someone put up their hand and asked the question I’ve been waiting for for a while: Isn’t the brain just like the World Wide Web? The brain is always the most complicated machine we currently have. And what’s the most complicated machine we currently have, it’s digital computation. So it could be that a digital computer isn’t intrisically powerful enough to do whatever it is that’s happening in our heads. And then there’s the additional question are we smart enough to do it?

    Prof. Rodney Brooks, Extract from Horizon: Where’s my Robot? (BBC Two, 2008)

    It’s high time to get over the clock model or kettle in the kitchen analogies. I think we even have to overcome the strictly computational digital model (with which I myself have some experience in trying to “humanize”). Technology and science have moved on. I know it’s hard to do. Hey, even poor clever old Einstein couldn’t stomach our strange new world! If we want to make sense out of moral responsibility, then we have to make sense of it in terms of everything being stochastic. If you think this is impossible because “luck swallows everything”, then I suppose we just have to live with being morally irresponsible. And if you think a fundamentally stochastic Universe is unlikely because its hard to conceive that God plays dice, then I quote Niels Bohr: “Stop telling God what to do!”

     We have to accept the way the world appears to be based on our latest technology. And it does NOT appear to be strictly deterministic. Sam Harris is just plain wrong here. He makes an elephant out of a flea, just like you yourself turn the kettle in your kitchen into a whole Universe.

  151. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    If he is right that “luck swallows everything”, then what can I say. We can just hope that there is still a sensible notion that represents what desert intends. Because we do get into all kinds of twisted strangeness if desert is an empty concept, far more than with free will.

    Well, Libertarian free will is the belief that we “have a choice” which gives us a freedom, which makes us morally responsible, in a way that makes it possible for us to be deserving of suffering or rewards as a result of our choices.

    Libertarian free will is the supposed bases of desert based moral responsible.

    And is the denial that “luck swallows everything”

    And worth pointing out again that it is this version of free will (amongst others) that just about everybody thinks we have.

    And we already know it, because we already know just about everybody believes in deserved consequences of choices.

  152. Stephen Lawrence

    oops not got the hang of quoting.

  153. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “Stephen, you forget who built those barriers: humans. Honestly though, I don’t understand your example.”

    That’s irrelevent, switch to another example if necessary.

    The point is can there be preventative causes in a deterministic universe. Can a tree cast a shadow for instance?

    “If indeterminism holds, then it holds for everything. Again you are misunderstanding indeterminism.”

    I agree but you also think computers are deterministic. You were saying how you needed to use psuedo random generators.

    “But it is processes internal to the bacteria that convert this energy into movement. The animated part that makes us alive comes from within.”

    Sure but what the bacteria is depends on it’s past.

    So we do what we do because we are what we are but we are lucky or unlucky to be what we are depending upon our pasts.

    And indeterminism will not help.

    “Why do you think of everything as external?”

    I don’t.

    “In your view, things cause other things to happen. But what causes the causing?”

    That’s a model to work with yes, a cause and effect universe.

    What causes the cause is it’s cause.

    “This is why your perspective is more theistic.”

    Nope, just a useful working model which free will must be compatible with. And to negotiate our day to day lives. I expect you use cause and effect reasoning all the time too. You couldn’t get through the day without it.

    “The Uncaused Cause is external to the sensible world.”

    The problem with an uncaused cause is you need to make it uncaused in a way that would give us freedom and responsibility.

    It’s that which is apparently impossible, not mere uncaused causes.

    That’s why most philsophers say libertarian free will is incoherent.

    And it’s precisely this version of free will which Galen Strawson argues against.

    You were saying that version was impossible.

    Now you seem to be saying you believe in it.

    It’s a freedom and desert based responsibility that come from uncaused causing.

    “If you instead think of everything as pushing against everything else with varying degrees of fluctuating power, then everything can potentially have effect on everything else.”

    Careful, sounds like determinism to me. :smile:

    “Your view of the world is a hangup from the 17′th century when mechanical clocks were the hot technology of the day.”

    The only view that matters, is that the only freedom and responsibility we can have is compatible with determinism.

    Whether the universe is like that or not is neither here nor there.

    “It’s high time to get over the clock model or kettle in the kitchen analogies.”

    Why? To add enough confusion so that people keep believing in libertarian free will?

    Indeterminism will not give people libertarian free will.

    And so a deterministic model is best.

    “If we want to make sense out of moral responsibility, then we have to make sense of it in terms of everything being stochastic.”

    1) Because there are stochastic processes says nothing about whether determinism is true or not.

    2) It makes no difference so why add confusion?

    “If you think this is impossible because “luck swallows everything”, then I suppose we just have to live with being morally irresponsible.”

    And now we see that you do believe in desert based moral responsibility that comes from indeterministic uncaused causing, in other words free will.

    And it’s this incoherent version of free will and responsibility that Galen Strawson argues against.

    “We have to accept the way the world appears to be based on our latest technology. And it does NOT appear to be strictly deterministic.”

    This is false.

    What appearance of indeterminism is there?

    But don’t forget the point is it doesn’t matter any way, because, wait for it, “luck swallows everything”. :smile:

    “just like you yourself turn the kettle in your kitchen into a whole Universe.”

    As far as free will and responsibility are concerned that’s the correct approach because freedom and responsibility must be compatible with that.

    And perhaps it’s true, how could we know it was false?

    All very repetative I’m afraid but it all hangs on the argument Not being that determinism is true but rather that “luck swallows everything.”

    And you simply have no answer to that.

  154. Stephen,
    You claim that most philosophers assume a deterministic Universe because it’s the only context in which moral responsibility could make any sense. I think this is wrong. Perhaps this assumption might be true for post-Rawlsian philosophers (since John Rawls popularized the notion of extremely circumscribed desert based on the notion of  “luck”).  But compatibilism far predates 1971. 

    Those thinkers who assume determinism assume it because they think we have to assume there is a cause behind every  cause in any context (not just an ethical context). Moral philosophy is never metaphysical grounding. All ethical thinking assumes a deeper reality. You personally seem to have no interest in systems that assume some fundamental mysterious randomness because:

    1) It means some things would be fundamentally inexplicable (goodness forbid, it goes against how you rationalize your life on a day to day basis).

    2) Randomness  conclusively eliminates all responsibility (but thank goodness, rationalizations don’t help either so you’re still well excused).

    I do agree with you that my challenge is to show how fundamental randomness does not preclude moral responsibility. But I cannot abandon my deep intuition that the Universe is at some profound level fundamentally random and inexplicable just because it’s inconvenient. Note also that since an ethical framework that assumes people are to some extent inherently stochastic would have to take account of both rational and irrational behavior, it aught to be powerful enough to subsume concepts of responsibility in a deterministic Universe as well.

    I’ve been trying to focus on Sam Harris short, categorical and poorly  founded claim that humans are completely deterministic and  can be well if not better understood by others. He doesn’t make this claim for the sake of the ethical argument. He makes it because it’s  what he epistemically believes.

    Here is a short sample of what grounds the intuition that the Universe is at some level inherently random:

    -As Helmut von Moltke said: “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond first encountering the enemy’s main strength”.

    -If presented with pear cider or Weißbier my mouth waters in both corners, but I’m no Buridan’s ass.

    -Computers are stupid.

    -We’re rather clueless as to what electrons really are, and if we can locate them we have no clue about their other important property. And if we know their mathematical property we call “angular momentum”, we have no idea where they might be “positioned”.

    -Understanding genotypes has not lived up it’s promise in determining people’s medical future. Now we have invented yet another layer in science called epigenetics!

    -Big concept evolutionism is predicated on a fundamental type of core variation that is minimally ordered with minimal meta-criteria for “goodness”.

    By the way, if it were true that most philosopher are anti-Libertarian and most people are not, it would still not mean popular notions of free will are wrong. All it might mean is that regular folk are more sensible and philosophers are stubbornly (and often absurdly) rational. ;)

  155. Careful, sounds like determinism to me.

    Stephen Lawrence

    If that’s the case I don’t know what you mean by determinism. As I understand it determinism is the claim that a state has one and only one possible consequent. A => B.  And not  A => B xor C. How does everything pushing against everything have anything to do with that?

    P.S. I would personally set a more stringent criterion for determinism: the exact consequent should be knowable in practice, not just hypothetically and in theory. Some limited and carefully isolated systems may under this criterion be described as deterministic but most systems would would not fit the bill.

  156. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “You claim that most philosophers assume a deterministic Universe because it’s the only context in which moral responsibility could make any sense”

    No, I claim most philosophers assume whatever moral responsibility we can and do have is compatible with determinism.

    Most compatibilists are not determinists.

  157. OK then, but do we agree that Sam Harrris – the main subject of this blog post – is a determinist?

  158. swallerstein (amos)

    Stephen:

    All compatibilists are determinists.

  159. Stephen Lawrence

    Andreas,

    “If that’s the case I don’t know what you mean by determinism. As I understand it determinism is the claim that a state has one and only one possible consequent. A => B. And not A => B xor C. How does everything pushing against everything have anything to do with that?

    Everything is an effect and also a cause, looks pretty much like causal determinism.

    I think your definition of determinism is fine.

    One future we can get to from the actual past, is what I use.

    “P.S. I would personally set a more stringent criterion for determinism: the exact consequent should be knowable in practice, not just hypothetically and in theory.”

    I wouldn’t.

    The problem is not being able to overcome the luck of having one future we can get to from our actual past.

    An unfortunate way of putting it, but one that hammers it home, is we are victims of the past, if determinism is true.

    “Some limited and carefully isolated systems may under this criterion be described as deterministic but most systems would would not fit the bill.”

    Of course.

    And I don’t even know if everything is knowable in theory, let alone, practice, if determinism is true.

    Here is Daniel Dennett’s latest talk on free will, which comes after Sam Harris’s book.

    He talks about predictability and he talks about just desert, you may be interested:

  160. Stephen Lawrence

    Amos,

    “All compatibilists are determinists.”

    You can believe free will is compatible with determinism.

    And indeterminism.

    And that the universe is indeterministic.

    I think you’ll find that most compatibilists do.

  161. Stephen Lawrence

    “OK then, but do we agree that Sam Harrris – the main subject of this blog post – is a determinist?”

    He seems to believe in quantum Indeterminism.

    But he believes this can have nothing to do with free will.

    And (I guess) believes it pretty much “washes out” when we get to a larger scale.

  162. Stephen Lawrence

    I’ll add, so he, like Jerry Coyne, is in a sense an indeterminists, it’s just that they believe that what ever quantum indeterminism there is has nothing to do with it.

  163. Fine, but what matters here in the context of free will and moral responsibility is what they think about us. And in this context they clearly seem to be determinists. And by the way, there are people who espouse a deterministic interpretation of QM. I think they’ve been having a little too much fun though: Incoherent Decoherence.

  164. Stephen Lawrence

    “Fine, but what matters here in the context of free will and moral responsibility is what they think about us. And in this context they clearly seem to be determinists”

    Close enough to determined for practical purposes, yes.

    But only by the definition one future we can get to from the actual past, leaving aside quantum randomness.

    The argument has nothing to do with knowable in practice or in principle.

  165. Stephen Lawrence

    “And by the way, there are people who espouse a deterministic interpretation of QM.”

    The problem is we can’t re- run the tape.

    So who knows whether the different results are coming from slight undetectable differences between the experiments or indeterminism.

  166. Thanks for the URL to the lecture. Dennett finally addresses folk/scientists conceptions of free-ill clearly and head-on. The rest is his usual lecture, unfortunately cut short when it’s about to become interesting again.
    “Let’s just grant that the folk ideology about free-will is incoherent”, says Dennett.
    Thanks, Dan! That might help cuts short this interminable discussion about what some philosophers believe folks believe about free-will. And of course, clarifies you position.
    For Dennett: “Free-will is moral competence”.
    Well of course, Harris would say: “Dan is changing the subject.”
    And Dennett will say: “No, moral competence is the subject”.
    For Dennett, “to be qualified” is to have (some degree of) free-will.
    Or, still for Dennett: “Unpredictability in practice (vs in theory) is all we need”.
    OK, got it. It looks and feels like we are free, unpredictable, sophisticated, mechanically sound, well informed, therefore morally competent agents. Therefore we have free will… “the only free-will worth wanting”. And because there are rules, we are responsible.
    And so on, and so forth.
    I’m still fully with Harris on this. Not on the societal consequence he tries to draw, which Dennett seems to fear above all, but on the question of free-will.
    And the fact that Dennett needs to explain his point over and over again and that nobody seems to get it (or perhaps agree with him), should probably be an indication to him. And not only of his resilience and patience.
    But perhaps all these scientists (and folks) simply don’t have the necessary competence to grasp Dennett’s finer points…

  167. swallerstein (amos)

    http://philosophybites.com/2012/05/adina-roskies-on-neuroscience-and-free-will.html

    A short talk which shows how much a good philosopher can do to clarify pop neuroscience
    about free will.

  168. No clarifying whatsoever.
    Anyone trying to clarify or discuss this issue must first state what he/she means precisely by “free-will”. She does not.
    And she then uses the terms “free-will” and “freedom” as if they meant the same thing and were interchangeable. Not so great for a philosopher.
    My impression is that she’s a compatibilist à la Dennett.
    Why should she even bother to criticize Libet-type experiments ? (ote that she hasn’t quoted Fried, who really is at the forefront with his direct neuron recordings).
    For “folks”, Dennetism and hard determinism are two sides of the same coin.

  169. Stephen Lawrence

    “For “folks”, Dennetism and hard determinism are two sides of the same coin.”

    Yep it’s free will or determinism for folk.

    People deserve the blame in certain cases because they could have done otherwise in the actual situation but chose not to.

    Who doesn’t believe that?

Leave a Comment


NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>