About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jerry Coyne on free will

by Massimo Pigliucci

As readers of this and of my Chicago University colleague Jerry Coyne’s blog know all too well, Jerry and I rarely see eye to eye, and seldom have any compunction in letting the world know about our disagreements. This is yet another example, which actually covers a topic that has been debated recently at Rationally Speaking. The reason I’m taking up free will again is because Jerry recently published an op-ep piece in USA Today confidently assuring his readers that they “don’t really have free will.” I think many of Jerry’s assertions are unfounded, and for interesting reasons.

Jerry starts out by teasing his readers about their alleged choice of reading his editorial (from which, of course, one deduces that he had no choice about writing it either), and continues: “So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.” This in philosophy is known as nihilism, a position that is commonly associated with Nietzsche and that has more recently valiantly been defended by Alex Rosenberg (I know, I keep promising to address his latest book, but it’s long, and it’s taking me some time to digest it).

Jerry’s aim is made clear by the following sentence: “The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.” I think that Jerry is wrong on two counts here: first, neurobiology simply cannot settle the question of free will, no matter what the data; second, Jerry focuses on a very small subset of the pertinent neurobiological literature, interpreting it incorrectly.

Before we continue, however, let’s hear Jerry’s definition of free will: “I mean it [free will] simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation.” He continues: “A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.”

As Jerry knows, and immediately admits in the paragraph following this quote, such a test is anything but practical. In fact, it cannot be carried out, ever. Which is why I contend that Jerry and others who push the idea that free will (and consciousness, and moral responsibility) is “an illusion” are mistaken when they think they are doing so on the basis of science. Science, if nothing else, is about empirically testable hypotheses, to which the above scenario certainly does not belong. Rather, Jerry et al. are making a metaphysical argument, an approach with which I’m fine, to a point, as a philosopher, but that is strange coming from people who clearly despise the very idea of metaphysics and scorn anything that cannot be approached by the empirical methods of science.

Knowing that his “practical test” is impossible to carry out, Jerry resorts to two lines of evidence he thinks clinch the case against free will. The first begins with the truism that we are biological organisms made of physical stuff, so that we have to abide by the laws of physics. And these laws, according to Jerry, do not leave room for free will. Of course this conclusion depends on one’s concept of free will, and there are several on offer (more on this below). It also depends on entirely unargued for assumptions, including the following: causal closure (i.e., that the currently known laws of physics encompass the totality of causal relationships in the universe); a working concept of causality (one of the most thorny philosophical concepts ever); physical determinism (which appears to be contradicted by physics itself, particularly quantum mechanics); and the non-existence of true emergent properties (i.e., of emergent behavior that actually is qualitatively novel, and doesn't simply appear to be so because of our epistemic limitations). I have opinions about all four of these points, but I don’t have a knockdown argument concerning any of them. The point is, neither does Jerry.

(Let me make clear parenthetically that I am certainly not in favor of fuzzy / mystical concepts of free will, and that I am as much of a naturalist — in the philosophical sense of the word — as Jerry. I just don’t think any of the above issues has been settled, and since it is Jerry who is making an extraordinary claim — that we are profoundly mistaken in our first person experience about free will, consciousness and morality — it seems fair to point out that he lacks the corresponding extraordinary evidence.)

Jerry’s second line of evidence for the non existence of free will draws not from physics but from neurobiology. Here he comments on recent elaborations of the famous Libet experiments about human decision making (or what cognitive scientists, and an increasing number of philosophers, refer to as volition, to get away from the theologically loaded term “free will”). Libet and others have convincingly shown that when people are asked to signal when exactly they have become aware of making the decision of pushing a button in front of a computer screen, it turns out that the decision had been made hundreds of milliseconds to several seconds before, subconsciously. That is, the brain apparently puts things in motion that will result in the pushing of a button way ahead of us becoming conscious of having made the decision to push the button.

Why this has anything at all to do with free will is a puzzle. Not even Libet himself took his experiments to show that people don’t make conscious decisions, in part because reporting awareness of an urge (in this case, of pushing a button) hardly qualifies as a conscious decision. The latter is the kind of reflective deliberation that Jerry and I engaged in while composing our respective essays, and it is simply not measured by Libet-type experiments. Indeed, it is not surprising at all that we make all sorts of unconscious decisions before we become aware of them, as any baseball batter, or anyone catching a falling object on the fly, will readily testify. Furthermore, as Alfred Mele has argued in his book on the topic, and contrary to Jerry’s take on the neurobiological literature, there is ample empirical evidence that we do engage in conscious thinking (largely catalyzed by the prefrontal cortex), as well as, and in continuous feedback loop with, our subconscious processing of information. (Incidentally, I find it strange when some people argue that “we” are not making decisions if our subconscious is operating, since presumably we all agree that our subconscious is just as defining of “us” as conscious thinking is. Accordingly, “my brain made me do it” is hardly a defense that will fly in a court of law except, and for good reasons, in pathological cases such as behaviors resulting from brain damage.)

To recap so far: I think Jerry’s position on free will is not scientific (it is a metaphysical stance), and his two “lines of evidence” are lacking because of unargued for philosophical assumptions and because of his misreading of the neurobiological literature. But just for the sake of argument let us suspend judgment on all of this and ask Jerry the obvious question: why do we have such a pervasive “illusion” to begin with? Apparently, he knew this was coming, and answered thus in the USA Today article: “where do these illusions of both will and ‘free’ will come from? We’re not sure. I suspect that they’re the products of natural selection, perhaps because our ancestors wouldn’t thrive in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they didn’t feel responsible for their actions.”

As far as I can tell there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support such speculation. To the contrary, we know of plenty of social animal species that seem to thrive very well indeed without requiring the illusion of free will to keep them in line. Certainly social insects don’t need to be fooled that way, and it is hard to imagine even species of social mammals, including most primates, needing to engage in deliberate reasoning before deciding how to behave toward fellow group members.

Jerry cannot resist the temptation of inserting a dig at philosophers toward the end of his essay: “philosophers have concocted ingenious rationalizations for why we nevertheless have free will of a sort. It’s all based on redefining ‘free will’ to mean something else.” There are two problems with this characterization of philosophers’ modus operandi: to begin with, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If philosophers didn’t inform their reasoning with the latest science they would be criticized (justly) as being stuck in medieval scholasticism. But when they do take science on board they get accused of “rationalizing.”

In the above comment Jerry also ignores that philosophers have been debating various concepts (not definitions, because they are not ex-cathedra pronouncements) of free will for a long time. Competing approaches to free will have been put forth, among others, by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and more recently Daniel Dennett and Harry Frankfurt, to name but a few. It is a profound mischaracterization of the history of philosophy to present various takes on free will as being simply reactive to the latest scientific discoveries. And of course some philosophical accounts of free will are more (and some less) in synch with scientific findings (which, it is worth bearing in mind, are themselves always tentative and sometimes spectacularly overturned). Nothing general about the nature of philosophy follows from that.

By the end of his USA Today essay Jerry finally gets to the crux of the matter: the implications of the alleged lack of free will for religion and morality. On the first count, Jerry claims that the death of free will spells the death of religion, although ironically he then mentions the Calvinist view of pre-determination. In fact, plenty of religious beliefs are compatible with lack of free will, so it seems like religion will survive even this assault (as befits an infinitely malleable tradition of made up stories).

Jerry’s second conclusion is that moral responsibility is therefore also an illusion, and that we should finally face up to this truth. Besides the obvious point that, according to his own view nobody has any choice about whether to face up to anything, what would this mean in practice? Jerry puts it this way: “we should continue to mete out punishments because those are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you’ll behave badly in the future.” And he goes on to say: “[we need to contemplate] the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of ‘me’ are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection ...  With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.”

At this point I’m truly puzzled. How is it possible to argue that we “should” do X in order to achieve Y if, as Jerry’s intellectual kin, Alex Rosenberg, would put it, “the physical facts fix all the facts”? It is hard for me to make sense of a position that denies that we have any choice in any matter, while at the same time advocating that we should or should not do certain things rather than others. How can we have a choice to contemplate (or not) what Jerry is proposing? How can we then decide to build a kinder world? And since morality itself is an illusion, why should we try to build a kinder world anyway? I’m sure I’m missing something, but I would very much like to know what that something is.

In the end, skepticism about free will seems to me to be akin to radical skepticism about reality in general (the idea that all of reality is an illusion, or a computer simulation, or something along those lines): it denies what we all think is self-evident, it cannot be defeated logically (though it is not based on empirical evidence), and it is completely irrelevant to our lives. If it teaches us anything, it is to humble us into contemplating the possibility that we may know (in the case of radical skepticism) or be able to act (in the case of free will skepticism) much less than we often smugly think — and we can all use an occasional lesson in humility. That said, we should then proceed by ignoring the radical skeptic in order to get back to the business of navigating reality, making willful decisions about our lives (including New Year’s resolutions, which actually succeed surprisingly often), and assign moral responsibility to our and other people’s actions.


  1. "It is hard for me to make sense of a position that denies that we have any choice in any matter, while at the same time advocating that we should or should not do certain things rather than others."

    Even if our choices are not free, we still have to carry them out. If you're deciding between eating an apple and a banana, the choice might already be determined - but you don't yet know the outcome of the choice! So you still have to choose, even if you're not doing so freely.

    1. Pierre Duhem, an historian of science, says about free will: Suppose a person is collecting minerals and arranging them according to their color. He builds a chest of drawers and labels the drawers one of the colors of the rainbow. He puts a red mineral in the red drawer, the green mineral in the green drawer, etc. One day he finds a white mineral, and he says, “White minerals don’t exist.”

    2. The white mineral is clearly representing free will here, and Duhem thinks we should not dismiss it. But can you explain how the drawer organizing process relates to the current debate and the views of free will deniers (of which I am one).

    3. The idea is that someone invested a lot of thinking about minerals with the assumption that minerals are red, blue, green, etc. When he finds something that conflicts with this assumption, he says the discovery is an illusion.

      Free will deniers love the assumption that humans are collections of molecules. Funnily enough, when it comes to the other indefinable functions of the human mind (conscious knowledge, intelligence, and judgment) they have a different psychological strategy of denial. They say animals have conscious knowledge, intelligence, and judgment.

  2. //..you still have to choose, even if you're not doing so freely.//

    That sentence is self-contradictory. Saying "have to" is inconsistent with no-free will position. How "can I", if I don't have free will? There can't have "haves" and "oughts" and "shoulds" without FW; only "IS". No-free will position is absurd thus for conscious beings, and therefore one can't really operate with it. Believing in it (in no-free will) is, IMO, intellectual perversion.

    1. Disagreed. "Haves" and "oughts" and "shoulds" are exhortations that can change the desires of the people you are exhorting. If you think a certain set of people have bad desires (i.e. desires that would make the world a worse place), you can try to use moral language to mold those desires into better desires. Desires and beliefs are the causes of actions, not "free will." We can change other people's actions by either changing their desires or changing their beliefs. Moral language is an attempt to change desires. Argumentative language is an attempt to change beliefs. Both work. Together, they lead to truer beliefs and better desires over time. Free will has nothing to do with it.

    2. Well said! We are, as Bodelaire said, "besieged by demons" (desires and beliefs) who compel us to carry out their secret agendas. The good news, as you point out, is that if we become aware of the presence of these demons they may be unmasked and lose some of their ability to demand blind obedience to their provocations.

  3. I can't help but think of this as yet another of those philosophical differences which make no difference, to borrow from "Wild Bill" James. We regularly disregard the claim we have no free will just as we regularly disregard the claim there is no "external world." There is something disingenuous even in debating this issue, except perhaps as an exercise or amusement.

  4. People like Coyne are apparently confusing inevitability with free will. There may well be inevitability that is/was inescapably determined although not predetermined, nor in that sense more than probabilistically or approximately predictable.
    But free choice makers are clearly needed to make that degree of predictability in the system work. We are free to predetermine that the next thing or person will need to add his determinations to the mix that in the end will have been that freely made with our help to be inevitable.
    Some of our brains can freely grasp that and some cannot.

  5. I partially agree with Coyne, if one takes "free and conscious" together as a single modifier. And, he's not alone on this; Daniel Wegner's written a lot on this.

    To riff on Gilbert Ryle's debunking of the "ghost in the machine," the Cartesian meaner -- if there's no Cartesian meaner, there's no Cartesian free willer. So, the free will vs. determinism battle is a non-battle; say "mu" to it. Something similar to free will may exist below the level of consciousness, but that's different; it would arise from that battle of subpersonalities just as personality/consciouness does, then.

  6. An empirical test suggestion for those who endorse (using Raymond Tallis's term) neuromania. The Libet and other similar investigations show various correlations between brain activity and behavior of this sort: here (fMRI brain scan or some such) is what was going on in the brain while the experimental subject was doing X. This leaves open the question, did the brain activity cause (or at least influence) the behavior, or did the behavior cause (or at least influence) the brain activity? An empirical test that wouldn't settle the issue but would contribute thereto: show neuroscientists a brainscan but DON'T tell them what the subjects were doing; let the neuroscientists discern that from the brainscan. Were the subjects moving a hand in a figure eight, or looking at sexy pictures, or describing what they had for dinner last night - and if their behavior involved verbalization, in what language - English, Chinese, French . . . ?
    If the neuroscientists could provide correct answers to such questions from examination of brainscans, I'd be very impressed!!

  7. I'm on your side of the debate, this post explained things quite clearly I think. In general, the strange loop of "me" - going round and round from conscious to unconscious - is almost always glossed over. (You're right to criticize the naive view above, but there is lots more to say about this topic).

    In specific, whether there is "causal closure" or not isn't likely to influence this debate much. Pace Sean Carroll (physicist), we know the vast majority of what there is to know about the fundamental forces (the physical laws of the local universe). [I agree with Carroll, but I'm still in doubt if this is a correct use of "pace"]

    Physical determinism in this context is not contradicted by quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics deals with sub-atomic particles, and every interaction within the brain involves molecules, cells and networks, which are all coherent - their interactions don't follow quantum mechanical rules.

    My opinion is that there are true emergent properties. The computer game of Life proves that, doesn't it?

  8. An argument I rarely see is the following: free will is a prerequisite for making science, therefore, proving its inexistence from our scientific knowledge is inconsistent.
    Indeed, What does "believing" mean if not based on a free investigation (e.g. freely play on different factors to infer a law)? If we are mere spectators of the world, then any belief (including a scientific belief) is a pure contingency, and no theory really holds.

    The following paradox also shows the tight relation between knowledge and free will: if I have the exact knowledge of what I will do, then can I choose (on the basis of this knowledge) to do the contrary? If not, why not? Does knowledge curbe the illusion to be free? Obviously not. Therefore I cannot *know* that I am not free (and neither can Jerry Coyne)

  9. i agree with Jerry. Certainly science, not just nuerobiology, deals with causation all of the time, and that can be carried over to notions of freewill. I am an applied physicists that works with nano materials among other things. If we deal with nanoparticles in polymers for instance, it is very difficult to do a model of the complicated interactions of the long chain polymers and the high aspect ration nanofillers. That would not of course assume the system has Freewill. It just means that we have to use experiments often, even though theory is fairly well understood. I see no reason why a physical structure such as the brain should be any different than the filled polymer system. Molecules, chemicals and particles in a mix, which is complicated to model. Yet when we study the brain experimentally, either with animal models, or post mortem, we find very predicable behavior of neurons, and glia cells. The computation of the cause and effect relationship is hard due to the size and complexity of the system, but nonetheless we have to assume that the brain behaves the way all other objects in our known universe behave. That is they are either completely determined on large scales, or involve random quantum fluctuations in others. Either way, there is no choice involved. No Free-Will. To me this is an enlightenment philosophy that for some reason keeps popping up. Somehow Descartes keeps raising his head, and duality, even when not called such, remains an enact viewpoint of important philosophy.

  10. Before we talk of "free will", it seems we need to understand what each speaker means by "free will" in the context of their usage. It seems that most of the time, the phrase is used outside of any context....outside of any actual usage or the phrase. Wittgenstein warned about taking words out of normal usage, and isolating them in a discussion. "Free will" can mean so many different things to different people....that an intelligent discussion becomes impossible. For those that think they already know what "free will" means....think again.

  11. *but nonetheless we have to assume that the brain behaves the way all other objects in our known universe behave.*
    The brain assesses the discernible options, including the predictable effects of accidents, and few other objects in the universe are known to do that. And especially not to learn from mistakes and make more and more sophisticated choices. We do that as well as or better than most of those other objects, and especially the non-choice making ones. You may still want to believe in a linear yet all encompassing causative chain, but hopefully not one based on an equal inability of all to choose.

  12. I find it interesting that most people have not addressed at all my two crucial points: a) Jerry's position is metaphysical in nature, since it has little to do with empirically testable propositions; b) as metaphysics, the denial of free will is on par with radical skepticism: certainly possible, but with no decide argument in favor (or against), and deeply irrelevant to anything else. Thoughts?

    1. Yes I agree with you, and that in my mind is a weakness of the argument. I , unlike you, do feel that empirical methods can be employed for exploring free will. Even without them though his metaphysical argument make rational sense to me, which I guess just means it is only an opinion that I agree with. Maybe I would consider his argument a hypothesis, as a launching point for science to step in and work it out. If that is how it is taken, it interests me more than just a metaphysical issue. Also, I am a philosophical neophyte, so I apologize for ignorance in terms of definitions.

    2. Massimo: As far as who said what, I admit that I've only read your side of the story, but I definitely agree with you that free will - as typically defined & debated by philosophers - is not an empirically testable hypothesis.

      What's more, insofar as the concept of free will overlaps with a concept of absolute freedom (analogous to divine omnipotence), I'm not sure that it was ever coherent to begin with (as opposed to being merely an impressive combination of words).

      So what else is new?

    3. Mufi, I think that Tom Clark at the Center for Naturalism does a pretty good job of enlisting scientific responses to the free-Will debate. http://naturalism.org/

    4. Matthew: That's a big site - including the section on Free Will. Is there a particular essay that you wish to highlight?

      More pointedly, does Clark endorse the "rewind the tape" test of free will that Massimo reproduced above? If so, then it's indeed hard to imagine how we could ever carry out such a test (i.e. "with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way"), and it seems a lot more plausible that the proposition reflects a gross over-estimate of what kinds of questions humans are capable of settling (scientifically or otherwise).

      On the other hand, if all we're testing is whether or not human thought and behavior is somehow free of any and all constraints or influences (e.g. physical, biological, and cultural), then the question is already settled: such constraints and influences are demonstrable. But that's a different (and relatively modest) question, isn't it?

    5. Massimo, I will at least partially agree with your second point. We act "as if," kind of like Hume's famous attempt to pin down his "self." We act as if we have free will, whether we do or not. The first point? Belief in free will is ALSO arguably *not a scientific proposition.* It certainly is no more provable right now than is the denial of free will.

      And, to assume that only the denial side needs to be "proven" would itself be a form of acting "as if."

      Hence, riffing on Douglas Hofstadter, I'll again say that we need to say "mu" to at least part of this issue as its currently formulated.

    6. I agree that his position is like radical skepticism, in that it could be true metaphysically, but really doesn't do anything for us. Whether or not I'm a brain in a vat, I have to go out, buy food and take care of my daughter, mind the cars as I cross the street, and anything else to stay alive and live in the only way I know. Radical skepticism does nothing to change that, even if I grant it some plausibility (especially the simulation hypothesis). This free-will skepticism is similar, in that despite its truth, has no bearing whatsoever on my life. I still have to go about making "choices" even if they're just illusory, and holding others accountable as if they have free will. So, the debate over free will is essentially useless. It adds nothing to us, and is ultimately just useless armchair speculation.

    7. a) Jerry's position is metaphysical in nature, since it has little to do with empirically testable propositions; b) as metaphysics, the denial of free will is on par with radical skepticism: certainly possible, but with no decide argument in favor (or against), and deeply irrelevant to anything else. Thoughts?

      On (a): If I interpret correctly, you have placed counterfactual language into the realm of unscientific metaphysical speculation. I doubt you would consider statements e.g. "were it below 20 degrees yesterday, the surface of this pond would have frozen over" to be unscientific. The rationale of such theories can in fact be tested. (If we miss this, the disputes over neuroscience and extent of determinism seem misplaced. I'm not sure what led you to this.)

      On (b): I won't say anything so strong as `decisive', but I don't think that disbelief in free will and radical skepticism are on epistemic par, as both being in the category of "things we feel obliged to say are possibly correct". As you've noted already, everyone agrees that many (most?) of our actions and `decisions' cannot count as true choices. The debate centers on whether or not our `automated' character sometimes goes on break whenever we reflect. Treating this as a point of prior probability, I cannot see any equivalence with radical skepticism.

      Other evidence of import is also - so far as I can tell - completely uncontroversial. Complete causal closure and determinism? The nature of causation? Hardly settled, as you rightly note. But incompleteness here has not robbed settled physics of all potency in this matter. How does quantum indeterminacy help free will, for example? Here I struggle to think of anything which would be out of place in a Chopra article. Now suppose that the universe is not causally closed. Now what? For this to help free will, we have to make the stronger claim that neurons are among those (apparently privileged) macroscopic objects which - through the strange powers of reflection - are exempt from constraint.

      I won't jabber much longer, as these are not my primary reasons for rejecting free will in any case. Point being: this is not like speculating about brains in vats.

    8. Bonus:

      first, neurobiology simply cannot settle the question of free will, no matter what the data;

      It's the year 2050. The greatest scientists of the world have gathered at the prestigious University of Phoenix to attend a conference. Dr. James `Pimpcane' Shadowmaster presents the much anticipated fruits of his research through a dramatic demonstration. One by one, the scientists are hooked up to The Device and asked to compose an essay on whatever topic they desire. The room watches as a monitor on The Device - shielded only from the vision of the subject - predicts the contents of the essay many minutes in advance. In terms of time, The Device is a significant improvement to its precursor - The Predevice - which only had the processing power to occasionally predict similar phenomena a minute in advance.

      Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Devry have finished constructing the first batches of artificial humans. It cannot be as precisely controlled as a simple robot, but researchers have discovered that skillful manipulation of certain neural structures can ensure with high probability that selected behaviors are never exhibited, even though the artificial humans - which are otherwise indistinguishable from normal humans - insist that they simply never want to engage in those behaviors. One subject, "Tom", has a normal libido yet has been built never to masturbate. While for obvious reasons it initially distrusted such research, such moral advances have thrilled the Catholic Church. They are however less thrilled with "Jane", who has been programmed to divorce and remarry as frequently as possible.

      Not all our future endeavors have been successful, however. Dr. Gene Ray's Society for Brainvatism floundered early.

    9. @ Mufi re "rewinding the tape":

      Determinism says that given a physical state of affairs, for instance the state of your brain, body and environment at this instant (time T), there’s a single possible next state of affairs at T+1 as necessitated by causal laws discovered to hold at various levels of description, atomic, chemical, and biological. Excluding any randomly generated influences (for instance from cosmic rays, beta decay, etc.), the state at T+1 then necessitates the next, and so on, such that there’s a law-like set of transitions over time that would be exactly the same if we could reset all conditions back to their original state at T. Of course we can’t actually perform this experiment, but the deterministic claim rests on the rather robust intuition that similar causes produce similar effects. It’s uncontroversially true that at least at the macro level of chemicals, compounds and the larger phenomena they constitute, nature exhibits very reliable, law-like regularities as documented by science over the last 350 years. What we seem not to observe, given our ever increasing ability to control for causal factors in experimental situations, are inexplicable departures from these regularities. The success of science in explaining, predicting and controlling the world hinges on the manifest dependability of cause and effect relationships. If anything is true about nature, it’s that it exhibits a predictable order in transitions between states. It’s unlikely that we are exceptions to that order, given that we are all-natural, all-physical, all the time.

      from "Fully caused: coming to terms with determinism" at

    10. Tom, that was well said, but also somewhat of a strawman argument. No one I know (and that group includes some pretty far-out woo believers) would deny the regular and predictable phenomena that modern science has observed over the past several centuries. What's at issue here is not an appreciation of science, but rather certain metaphysical claims that are not amenable to scientific inquiry. That said, suffice it to say that I accept Massimo arguments here and here.

    11. Thanks. I guess one philosophically admissible question is whether we have any good empirical reasons to think that, counterfactually, were conditions set the same, a different outcome would result. Barring quantum randomness, which does not confer agent origination (what people want from free will) there's no evidence I'm aware of that a different outcome would occur. So seems to me to talk about the rewinding the tape criterion for having contra-causal (libertarian) free will makes sense from a scientific standpoint. Science sometimes bears on what have long been considered strictly metaphysical questions. The debate about free will is what I call "philo-scientific," involving both conceptual and empirical issues, http://www.naturalism.org/murphy.htm#_ftn1

    12. But that's just it: We have no sound empirical basis to decide one way or the other, because the experiment required to test the hypothesis has never been (and almost surely cannot be) conducted.

      For example, could I have turned left, rather than right (or vice versa), at such and such a corner at such and such a time (assuming that I did so)? I assume not (e.g. that my turning right then and there is a fixed feature of the universe), but, strictly speaking, I must admit that I'm an agnostic on the matter.

      Plus there's this statement from Massimo:

      Predictability is an issue entirely separate from determinism, since we can have deterministic (chaotic) systems that are for all effective purposes unpredictable, and...stochastic (quantum) systems that are nonetheless predictable to a very high degree of accuracy.

      and my reply to it:

      I felt my interest in the topic drop when I read this line. I'm not sure exactly why, but I suppose that it stems from a pragmatic bias, or an assumption that predictability has obvious practical value (e.g. as a means of survival and goal achievement), whereas the metaphysical doctrines of determinism and indeterminism do not - or at least no more so than the religious doctrines that occupy theologians (e.g. as a means of socialization and intellectual exercise).

    13. Ok, if you take empirical to require actually conducting the test, then you're right, since we can't. But given the evidence apart from conducting the test, which is that there are robust causal regularities at the macro level which explain why you turned the way you did, then there's no reason I can see that you'd be agnostic about which way you'd turn if we could conduct it.

    14. Apart from conducting the test, the evidence supports varying degrees of predictability (depending upon the particular phenomena under investigation), and predictability (as Massimo pointed out) does not settle the debate over determinism vs. indeterminism.

    15. Since indeterminism at whatever level it might exist doesn't confer agent origination, which is what people want from free will, the debate over determinism needn't be decided to establish that we don't have (contra-causal, libertarian) free will. We aren't first causes, whether or not determinism is the case.

    16. Tom: My earlier comments take for granted Coyne's criterion for settling the free will debate, which (aside from being an impossible goal) may or may not measure up to the "agent origination" criterion that you now raise (depending on how clearly it's defined).

      In any case, I admit that I'm partial to a two-stage model of free will, despite my agnostic stance on that matter.

    17. Re two stage models, I've reviewed Bob Doyle's book on free will in which he defends such a model, see http://philocafe.org/articles/review-of-free-will He posits a role for quantum indeterminacy in the brain when generating alternatives for selection, and agent determinism in actually making the selection. So on his view (which needs empirical confirmation) we're free from strict determinism, but still identifiable decision-makers.

    18. mufi,

      If you are partial to a two stage model, why not place the indeterminism of the first stage at the beginning, 13.7 billion years ago, in your model? Does it make any difference to place it later on during a decision making process?

  13. As Massimo has pointed out on several occasions, it is all to easy, and tempting, to conflate the correlative findings of scientific observation with causal fact. Any time anyone does anything, the brain is somehow involved; but we know that it is a logical fallacy to catalog such observations and believe that they constitute a predictive road map for human behavior. Given the dismal track record of those who have thought they were in possession of such a road map (whether derived via neuroscience or some other source); it is clear that human behavior is a lot like the the behavior of fundamental particles described by quantum mechanics, in that it is not linear and predictive, but probabilistically emergent. In short, it appears that people are nowhere near as in control of their actions as they think they are; but to jump all the way to absolute determinism is an arrogant overreach. The pattern of human nature may be tantalizingly crystalline; but the way in which that pattern emerges through each of our lives, like the quantum process that is responsible for for the interference pattern expressed in Young's double slit experiment, is full of creative possibility and impossible to predict with 100% accuracy. While this may burst the bubble of determinism, it does not rescue free will until the boundaries of "self" versus environment can be accounted for.

  14. Well, I thought I had touched upon your point that his position is "deeply irrelevant" to anything else by noting my feeling the question whether there is free will "makes no difference." But this is to make any "yes or no" response to the question irrelevant, of course.

  15. "Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same door where in I went."

    While it is fun to read about Free Will / Determinism, it seems like a tempest in a teapot to me. Consider the possible combinations of belief and reality and their associated "payoffs" (in the spirit of Pascal's Wager*).

    1) Determinism is true and you believe in Determinism: Payoff = zero. It does not matter. Things will unfold as they are meant to unfold. You won't be able to change it. There's nothing you can do about it.

    2) Determinism is true and you DON'T believe in Determinism: Payoff = zero (see above).

    3) Determinism is false and you believe in Determinism: Payoff = minus one. You pass up opportunities to possibly change events in your life in the false belief that they cannot be changed. Presumably, you won't try changing some things to your benefit that you might have changed.

    4) Determinism is false and you DON'T believe in Determinism: Payoff = plus one. You are (occasionally) able to change things in your favor when you act on the belief that it is POSSIBLE to change things by having the will to do so.

    Therefore, if you believe in Determinism, the payoff is zero or minus one, depending on whether Determinism is true. But, if you DON'T believe in Determinism, the payoff is zero or plus one.

    Bottom line is: you might as well believe in Free Will, since if you have it, you need to believe in it and use it to your benefit; whereas, if you have no Free Will, it won't matter what you believe or (try) to do. -- sort of like screaming at the guy on the TV set: "watch out behind you!" and hoping that he won't get hit on the head. You may as well just sit back and enjoy the show.

    Also, may I take this opportunity to say that I've thought it strange that proponents of Determinism will make impassioned arguments and sometimes advocate that criminals be treated more humanely (because of Determinism). It seems to me that if you REALLY believed in Determinism, you wouldn't bother making any argument at all, since whether I (or anybody else) will be convinced is already "in the cards". (I guess their only excuse is, that they can't help making a pointless argument -- they can't help warning the guy on the TV set not to get hit on the head.)

    Likewise, if it is true that the criminal can't help stealing (because of Determinism), it is also true that the Judge can't help sentencing him to jail. But, some people seem to have an odd "dualism" in which they argue everything is "fixed", yet we should be concerned about what we believe and act upon our beliefs to change the Justice system. It seems to me that you can't have it both ways: either what we do and believe matters and can be changed depending upon will, or it does not matter and things cannot be changed. In that case, why argue about it?

    Dr. Pigliucci refers to this when he writes, "...according to his [Coyne's] own view nobody has any choice about whether to face up to anything...".

    [*I think the logic of "Pascal's Wager" is flawed. I am merely using the concept of examining the payoff v. beliefs. ]

    P.S. I find myself less and less interested in what Coyne has to say. Bertrand Russell, when writing about fanaticism as a camouflage for cruelly said, "...kindliness and tolerance are worth all the creeds in the world...".
    and, "from men who are more anxious to injure opponents than to benefit the world at large no great good is to be expected". Coyne has an ugly sort of dogmatism about his beliefs that is just a mask for cruelty. He should be ignored until he learns how to be more civil and tolerant.

    1. I don't see the benefit of trying to fool yourself into believing the most beneficial scenario. Better instead to act as if it were true, when acting as if it were not would be against your best interests. In the end we can never be completely sure about the results of any of our logic.

  16. @ciceronianus - re

    We regularly disregard the claim we have no free will just as we regularly disregard the claim there is no "external world." There is something disingenuous even in debating this issue, except perhaps as an exercise or amusement.

    Agreed, and point to Proteus' 15Jan 5:54AM comments as to why the debate is not worth having.

    One needs to question how free a floating bit of dust is to go this way or that way; one needs to restate what others have said here in earlier posts based on Schopenhauer - whether or not the thing I think of as me has 'free will', what difference could it make when 'I' am certainly not free to control what 'I' think about.

    To those who have argued that the debate has implications for the rule of law and societies, ask yourselves whether or not societies have free will.

    In the last sentence of the 15Jan 5:54AM comment, Proteus touches on why the debate approaches silliness and is disingenuous. First one must define those borders between self and not-self and define them well. It isn't enough to say '....well for the purposes of discussion, let's go with the body surrounding and inclusive of the brain." There are too many questions about connectedness and non-locality to continue to believe that any strictly biological, neurological discovery gets us any closer to an appetizing and useful explanation of behavior.

    If people inspired by Bohr, Born, Bohm, and Bell keep doing what they do, then for all we know, this push towards connectedness may have us talking about at most one or two opposing forces in our known world having free will.

  17. I’d like to explain a “fuzzy/mystical” concept of free will that Prof. Massimo Pigliucci may be referring to. According to Bernard Lonergan in his book Insight, the human mind is structured like the scientific method. At the lowest level is observation, which requires paying attention. At the level of inquiry, humans try to understand the relationship between things and understand why things happen. This requires intelligence. Very intelligent humans invent new insights and theories. At the level of reflective judgment, humans perform controlled experiments, marshal evidence, and decide whether a theory is true. This level requires being rational. The next level is deciding what to do with our bodies. This requires being responsible. Thus, humans are attentive, intelligent, rational, and responsible animals.

    When animals have nothing to do, they go to sleep. When humans have nothing to do they will ask the question: What is responsibility? What is free will? What is the relationship between myself and my body?

    The answer judged to be true by Catholic philosophers and theologians is that there is no answer. It is a mystery. By calling this answer “fuzzy/mystical,” Prof. Pigliucci indicates that he does not even grasp this solution.

    1. What solution was that again, pray tell?

    2. The solution is difficult to grasp because it is paradoxical: We know something because we don’t know something. We can comprehend free will because we have it. But we can’t define or explicate free will. Free will is an unsolvable mystery.

      The key to understanding the question is understanding the difference between these two questions: 1) What is the relationship between the Earth and the Sun? 2) What is the relationship between myself and my body?

      The first question is a scientific question and we will find out by applying the scientific method: more observations, hypotheses, controlled experiments. The second question is not a scientific question because it does not come from seeing, hearing, touching, etc. There are four hypotheses or possible solutions: 1) The self is an illusion (materialism). 2) The body is an illusion (idealism). 3) There are material and immaterial substances (dualism). 4) There is no solution (metaphysics).

  18. "How is it possible to argue that we “should” do X in order to achieve Y if, as Jerry’s intellectual kin, Alex Rosenberg, would put it, “the physical facts fix all the facts”? It is hard for me to make sense of a position that denies that we have any choice in any matter, while at the same time advocating that we should or should not do certain things rather than others."

    I agree that this was the worst part of Jerry's essay. That is why Rosenberg doesn't tell us what we should or should't do to solve the paradox... beside taking Xanax if we can't handle it, of course.

  19. Per Blackford's article that Massimo also linked on G+, I think a second problem is that free-willers (of various stripes) and determinists both view this issue in terms of polarities.

    And, I don't think that's necessarily valid. Why can't I have a degree of free will, or "free will," especially if, as I say above, any "free will" we have ultimately arises from subconscious levels, but after a struggle between various subselves?

    1. Obviously if one had a completely free will, all decisions made would be indifferent to reasonable causes. Freedom to choose is always limited to determinative options.

  20. Of course, Gadfly, but determinism denies any of it. Those who support FW may locate freedom in different regions of the mind (or even the organism at large. There are really two issues afoot here: Do humans normally have free will? and "What would it consist of?"

  21. Bravo Massimo. I think lack of true casual closure and physical determinism in modern physics should put this one to bed, though I don't understand the field well enough to be sure. Thanks for pointing out exactly what Libet's experiments demonstrated. And thanks for your modesty in presenting your arguments (and awareness of what we know and can know), it makes them far more convincing than shrill absolutes or "aha" logic games from other quarters.

  22. Gadfly,

    just to be clear on my position, I agree: both affirmation and denial of free will are metaphysical, not scientific, positions. But it is Jerry, not I, who pretends otherwise.

    1. Wrong. Denial of "free-will" is an inherently logical position, in the sense that the conclusion (that "free-will" does not exist) follows irrespective of one's metaphysical predilections. Self-determination is the sine qua non of "free-will". Self-determination is logically impossible, ergo "free-will" is a logically self-canceling absurdity. Massimo, we await with bated breath your admission of error.

    2. Enough with the logical absurdities, give us a kiss.

    3. Massimo is mistaken -- it's logic that "clinches the case" against "free-will" by informing us that "free-will" is a self-contradictory concept, like "square-triangle".

    4. Massimo compounds his confusion with the implication that there could be a non-mystical interpretation of "free-will" -- as if terms that express self-contradictory concepts weren't by definition, pure mystifications.

  23. There is a delightful paper on this topic -- namely:

    "The Pointsman: Maxwell's Demon, Victorian Free Will, and the Boundaries of Science".
    Stanley, Matthew. Journal of the History of Ideas 69.3 (Jul 2008): 467-491.

    Stanley recounts the arguments of James Clerk Maxwell in favor of Free Will.

    Maxwell invokes the image of a railway pointsman "to remind investigators to
    tread carefully in declaring something to be proven by science". If I only
    understand the railroad tracks, momentum, etc. and not the conscienceless of
    the pointsman who switches the tracks, I will not be able to understand if
    the train is headed East or West.

    Mawell notes that there are differential equations with peculiar points where
    an entire family of solutions overlap and it is impossible to tell which
    trajectory a particle will take.

    To use my own simpler example, the square root of "4" is "2", right? Not really,
    because "-2" (minus two) is also a valid answer. Which answer you use depends upon...well...CHOICE!

    This is not just a mathematical trick, because there is a lot of evidence to show
    the real world can behave in this fashion. Maxwell thought materialists such as
    Huxley had fooled themselves into seeing laws of nature where there were none.
    Maxwell noted that dynamical knowledge could produce certainty and exact prediction
    whereas statitstical investigations could only address probabilities and general

    To put a finer point on it, "if the tape of your life could be rewound" as Coyne
    suggests, you may NOT get the exact same results. For example, someone who starts
    to observe a radioactive substance at 3:00 o'clock may observe an alpha particle emitted
    exactly at 3:01. Rewind the tape, and the alpha particle may be emitted the next
    time around at 3:02! Radioactive decay is a statistical relation, not a dynamic relation.

    In a "causal" chain A->B->C (with an "if and only if relation - "B" occurs if and only if
    "A" occurs) we can predict "C" from "A". But if (like the square root function) A can result not only in "B" but also in "B'" (B prime), then B'->C'->D'->etc. and the train heads West instead of East!

    As mentioned before, there is a good deal of evidence that this type of thing occurs in real
    life. Consider the "double slit" experiment or Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle. Things
    are unpredictable, not only in practical terms, but unpredictable in principle. There is more that one way things can happen, and we have only statistical knowledge
    about the outcome.

    It seems to me that those who favor determinism must demonstrate that "A" inevitably results in "B" and never in "B prime" But the world just don't work like that!

    My apologies for my hasty and sloppy rendition of the "Pointsman" paper -- you really need to read the paper for yourself!

    1. Tom:

      Your example assumes the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics; quantum observations "collapse" the state and the outcome can only be described statistically.

      However, under Many-Worlds, the indeterminacy disappears. When the tape of life is rewound, the quantum state of the radioactive substance entangles with that of the viewer in the same way, deterministically resulting in a combined quantum state.

      In your example, A, B and C are quantum states, rather than classical projections of those states, and therefore forall A,B,C, A -> B -> C as required.

    2. Aside from the probability that the many worlds theories are baloney, even if they weren't or wouldn't be, there's no way to recreate that time reversal thought experiment in our reality. So all of the above is evidence of nothing. And if there really were those many worlds, indeterminacy would tend to exponentially run rampant.

    3. @Sharkey: Thanks for pointing out the "Many Worlds" interpretation. That is certainly something to chew on!

      However, as Dr. Pigliucci pointed out, it is Coyne who is acting as if the matter were a settled scientific question. Thus, the burden of proof is squarely on Coyne to demonstrate that "Many Worlds" should prevail over "Copenhagen".

      I'm merely saying "it ain't necessarily so".

  24. Generally, I try to avoid the FW debate as I find it ridiculously uninteresting and very nearly an idle form of mental masturbation, but I cannot resist here.

    First, the scientific evidence fails to justify any inference to statements of ultimate causation / determinacy - or lack of it; we should all be agnostic here.

    Second, the business about fundamental indeterminacy is immaterial to the FW debate: Even if fundamental microphysical processes are indeterminate, this brings the libertarian no relief: If one's cognitive processes result from fundamentally indeterminate microphysical interactions, in what meaningful sense can one be 'free' to choose between relevantly viable alternative actions? If one could at any moment randomly desire and eat a slice of Herve cheese, how can we identify that desire as the product of one's 'free will'?

    Essentially, libertarians require determinism, just they require the agent's will to be the primary determining factor.

    1. Of course that indeterminism per se doesn´t amount to anything like FW. The point is rather that physical determinism is used as one of the strongest, perhaps the strongest, argument by FW deniers. If neither indeterminism NOR determinism can be used to support or deny FW, that massively transforms the dialectic of the whole debate, don´t you think?

    2. Not at all. That the libertarian cannot advance arguments from quantum indeterminacy to undergird their position does nothing to affect adversely the determinist's position.

      To the contrary, the determinist's position is strengthened as the libertarian is in the very difficult situation of having to advance some causal hypothesis which accounts for contra-causal free will. From my perspective, the libertarian is at this juncture in a hopeless condition.

    3. Thanks for the reply. I didn´t mean to imply that the futility of inference from indeterminism to FW spells any trouble for the determinist. My reasoning was rather this: if we accept physical indeterminism (and I thought you did accept it), we eo ipso cannot argue against FW on the basis of physical determinism. So both sides (indeterminists and determinists) are in trouble. (If you don´t accept physical indeterminism, then my comment is, of course, pointless.)

  25. To have free will is to be free to exercise its power. Whether or not a large rock was destined to roll down hill in your direction, if you had been determined to see it coming, you will nevertheless still have a choice to make to exercise your power to move out of the way. One way or the other, it's been determined that we must be free to exercise the power of our choice making function.

    (And that's likely why we've long called it will power.)

  26. Intentional actions are generally described as a combination of desire plus belief. Does anyone actually believe that we have chosen our desires?

    1. I believe we choose to satisfy the desires that we've chosen early on to believe in our chances to realistically desire them.

    2. In any case the free will questions are about how, when, where, or which of our choices are determined, not about whether or not we are required by our natures to make them.

    3. We cannot choose not to use our choice making apparatus.

    4. >"I believe we choose to satisfy the desires that we've chosen early on to believe in our chances to realistically desire them."
      Could you clarify this a bit?

    5. >"In any case the free will questions are about how, when, where, or which of our choices are determined, not about whether or not we are required by our natures to make them."
      Our choices are determined by our desires and beliefs...
      are they not?

    6. >"We cannot choose not to use our choice making apparatus."
      Of course not...that is also determined....just as which choice we make is determined.....by our desires and beliefs....

    7. *Our choices are determined by our desires and beliefs...
      are they not?*
      No, it's the opposite.

      And we can't choose not to use something that requires us to use that choice to do so.
      But if you did't get that before, you won't get it now.

    8. Björn Brembs, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute forBiology – Neurobiology, proves nicely (maybe: empirical proof requested by Massimo)that Drosophila's behaviour in terms of flight-direction varies independant of any stimulus. He argues, that we are biased to try various/different approaches and finaly stick with this that brought the most successful outcome.
      Certainly anyone would attribute free will to a fruit fly. Although there seems to be something that makes them type of deciding.
      We are not fruitflies. But if there is a biological mechanism that makes us "trying around", it would certainly be a factor in this interesting discussion

    9. This was posted on another blog: "we’ve perhaps not so much evolved to make optional choices as to be free from the earlier lack of that ability. Because we now have the power to educate ourselves to be freer to select from more options if we choose to."
      So we seem to be using the same fruitfly strategy, except with a greater range of "freedom."

    10. "Options" would imply that alternative strategies were evaluated and then either dismissed or chosen. If however the finally applicated strategy among others had come up by chance (not chosen) we may very well eliminate will without necessarily arriving at a deterministic model.
      This model has a lot of charme in my opinion last but not least because of the parallel quantum physics for instance.

  27. Also I seem to lack the patience to deal with this slow moving system here, so I'll not be answering any more of your questions. Nothing I will say will change your philosophy or your mind, and vice versa.

  28. Jeremy
    >"I believe we choose to satisfy the desires that we've chosen early on to believe in our chances to realistically desire them."

    Could you clarify this a bit?

  29. >"Also I seem to lack the patience to deal with this slow moving system here, so I'll not be answering any more of your questions."
    Is that French for "I give up....I have no answer?"

    1. Vous n'avez pas une question intelligente.

  30. I already made my response to Coyne on my blog - http://diariesofanexistentialist.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/facticity-and-transcendency/

    I did have a thought while reading Massimo's response: when the test subjects are trying to push the button and report when they made the choice, weren't they all wrong? They made the choice after being explained the experiment's methodology and agreeing to go forward. When a baseball batter steps up to the plate he's already decided what he's going to do by the time the pitch is made, all that's left is for his body to act out that decision. This is not evidence against free will, simply evidence that actions can be triggered earlier than we can report becoming aware of them; something anyone in sports or martial arts will understand.

  31. I already posted my thoughts on my blog - http://diariesofanexistentialist.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/facticity-and-transcendency/

    I did have a thought while reading Massimo's response: when the test subjects are trying to push the button and report when they made the choice, weren't they all wrong? They made the choice after being explained the experiment's methodology and agreeing to go forward. When a baseball batter steps up to the plate he's already decided what he's going to do by the time the pitch is made, all that's left is for his body to act out that decision. This is not evidence against free will, simply evidence that actions can be triggered earlier than we can report becoming aware of them; something anyone in sports or martial arts will understand.

  32. ESTRAGON: Nothing to be done.

    VLADIMIR: I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (from "Waiting for Godot")

    * * *

    Shakespeare once faced a problem: "If I have Hamlet kill his uncle immediately, then what do I write for Act II"?

    I think Determinists have an Act II problem. Most knowledge doesn't have an Act II problem. If Act I is "fire will burn me", then Act II finds me retrieving my roast meat with a stick and resolving never to put my hand in the fire again. But if Act I is "everything, including my state of mind and my decision-making process, is uniquely and unalterably determined by prior states and laws", then where do I go from there? How do I use that knowledge?

    You might even say that "I" as a separate entity has ceased to exist. There is nothing for me to do and I'm not in control of anything (there is no "me" as a conscious decision-maker -- only the illusion of "me"). The play is over and you may as well bring the curtain down.

    Oddly enough, if absolute Determinism IS true, then it is unimportant. Knowing about it won't change anything and there is no way for me to use that knowledge. It is a one act play that leaves us waiting for Godot.

    1. Unfortunately your premises are built on a foundation of sand.

      Act I being "fire will burn me" leads right to "never putting your hand into a fire again". How you use that in an attempt to prove the existence of freewill is beyond me.

  33. Couldn't help myself (!) but had to skip the last half of your post, and all the comments so far, to say that Jerry is not making extraordinary claims. The principle of parsimony applies here. We don't need evidence FOR the absence of free will. Simple physics suggests it's impossible. The extraordinary claim is the opposite - that we DO have free will, for which both the evidence and the logic is absent. Jerry's test of rolling back the tape of events may be impossible to carry out, but Massimo, you must be able to put a prior probability on the outcome and if you think that a person could chose to do differently then what possible mechanism would you support that with?

    1. Whether the claim is extraordinary or not, it is the person making the claim that has the burden of proof.

      Also, there is nothing "simple" about what is suggested here: that EVERYTHING is absolutely and irrevocably determined in exactly one way -- contrary to such phenomena as radioactive decay, double slit, etc.

      The Free Will mechanism (assuming there IS a mechanism) is admittedly hard to see. But if a materialist dissected the body of Mozart looking for his "talent", he would find that Mozart's body looked like every other dead body and conclude that Mozart had no talent. But talent is an emergent property of the whole living being that cannot be localized or studied. Perhaps FW works along those lines. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    2. Here are some of the mechanisms suggested to underlie the free will.

      (From: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/mechanisms.html)

      James Clerk Maxwell's "Singularities" (1856)
      Arthur Stanley Eddington's "Free Electrons" (1928)
      Arthur Holly Compton's Photocell Amplifier (1931)
      John Eccles' "Critically Poised Neurons" (1953)
      A. O. Gomes' Quantum Composer (1964)
      Daniel Dennett's Pseudo-Random Number Generator (1978)
      Robert Kane's Probability Bubbles (1985)
      Alfred Mele's Roulette Wheel (1999)

      These are, of course, mere possibilities. The truth may be much more strange and much more subtle.

    3. Tom,
      All "things" are by default assumed to not exist until we have enough evidence to believe they do. No one should ever be burdened with proving something doesn't exist. It would be impossible to operate rationally (+ consistently)if this were a requirement because there are an infinite number of imaginable things that don't seem to exist. It would be a waste of everyone's time to be forced to prove they are false before we dismiss them.

      I disagree about the simpleness of it - all events have a cause. That's pretty simple. Therefore all events must trace back to the first event in an UNBROKEN chain of events. No amount of "free will" can break this chain (which, by the way, also stretches forward in time to the end of time).

      And don't pull in the Quantum Mechanics argument - that's definitely got nothing to do with free will (sorry I didn't check out the list of mechanisms you listed but the names alone suggest they're more like QM than FW).

    4. The experience of choosing is one we all share, and clearly raises the question of whether we have freedom of will in making choices. As such, with the question raised like that, and an the existence of an experience not denied by anyone, the question becomes one of the nature of that experience, not of the simple existence of it or not. We could reframe the question as such: Human choice: free or not free?, and in that case anyone making a claim one way or the other is not making the claim that something exists while the other is in the privileged position of being able to refuse to say something exists absent proof. This is as open a question as any can be since we all experience choice and have to confront the question of what the true nature of that choice is, and, that experience being undeniable a real thing (no one denies having it), parsimony doesn't apply. We're all equally put-upon to explain the common experience.

  34. "The principle of parsimony applies here. " That principal is only a suggestion, not a law.
    "Simple physics suggests it's impossible." Quantum physics suggests more recently the opposite.

    1. News to me, that quantum physics should give reason to believe in free will. Maybe you want to give some hints.

    2. Heisenberg's indeterminacy principal. You don't have to believe in it to know about it.

    3. http://www.tuwien.ac.at/en/news/news_detail/article/7357/

    4. 1st thank you for responding.
      I am aware of uncertainty in nature, of either or, but this does not necessarily lead to decission and such to will of one who decides.
      You are aware of the interesting theory that random choice of given alternatives in nature is one motor of evolution. Random choice again excludes will & causation and I would go even further, it excludes agency as well.

    5. Interesting info from Vienna. But nothing that could counterdict the above said.
      "Heisenberg’s arguments for the uncertainty principle have to be revisited – the uncertainty principle itself however remains valid". My argument was, general uncertainty, the permanent option of a choice, does no include a choice is made.
      But maybe I have missed something out?

  35. Derek
    I agree with everything you said in describing the implications of determinism and lack of free will. Those thoughts about the implications are what causes so many supposed free thinkers to resist. Determinism is a threat to their ego, their pride, their sense of being good and moral persons. The loss of freedom and dignity causes feelings of depression and destabilization. It used to be referred to as causing "existential trauma". It is much like the child who learns he is not really the center of the universe...not really different and special....not someone that can take pride in what they are....who they are or why they might be a better person than anyone else. It is threatening for some....not for others.

  36. The prior probability of the ignorant repeating the same mantra is close to 100%, but since they remain free to do it, not quite a certainty.

  37. jeremybee
    You are the product of your genes and your experience....your parents upbringing....their moral indoctrination...the religion you grew up in...your peer group...Do you really believe that the religion you were brought up in, just happened to be the "correct" religion....or that the moral system that you inherited
    just happens to be the "correct" one. You are a product of forces that you did not choose. There is nothing more than that. Get used to it. It's not that bad once you have accepted and dealt with it.

    1. Mantra. You people can't seem to get it that we are free from the constraints of choicelessness, not free from the forces of causation.

    2. jeremybee
      You don't seem to understand that the choices you claim to have are themselves unfree of causation....unless your claim is that they are merely random....and that would not seem to be a good way of making choices.

    3. They are random and we are not making choices, nevertheless we are not determined, as the randomness of our behaviour forbids to think that it is determined.

  38. Merely random is a meaningless phrase here, as randomness in a probabilistic universe means randomly determined; having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely. As I've said, it's a waste of time to keep explaining that to you, as you can't see beyond the simple excuses given for determinism to nevertheless need to make evolutionary progress.

  39. jeremybee
    Wow!! I didn't know. You must see free will as something sacred. You will go to any lengths to defend free will. Why is that? Why do you care if there is or is not free will"

  40. To Jeremybee & DJD

    I think your exchange has reached the point of diminishing returns.

  41. Eamon
    I couldn't agree more....

  42. Apparently Massimo agrees as well, since my recent posts have not been published. So if (and as) I've worn out my welcome here, I'll bid all adieux. Freely.

  43. Once again, as a general reminder: the only posts that get deleted are those that contain death threats or what I deem to be unnecessary insults (as opposed to necessary ones). Nobody has worn their welcome recently.

  44. From: The Biology of Free Will, Mae-Wan Ho
    The freedom of organisms
    The organism maximizes both local freedom and global intercommunication. One comes to the startling discovery that the coherent organism is in a very real sense completely free. Nothing is in control, and yet everything is in control. Thus, it is the failure to transcend the mechanistic framework that makes people persist in enquiring which parts are in control, or issuing instructions; or whether free will exists, and who choreographs the dance of molecules. Does "consciousness" control matter or vice versa? These questions are meaningless when one understands what it is to be a coherent, organic whole. An organic whole is an entangled whole, where part and whole, global and local are so thoroughly implicated as to be indistinguishable, and each part is as much in control as it is sensitive and responsive. Choreographer and dancer are one and the same. The `self' is a domain of coherent activities, in the ideal, a pure state that permeates the whole of our being with no definite localizations or boundaries, as Bergson has described.
    The positing of `self' as a domain of coherent activities implies the existence of an active whole agent who is free. I must stress that freedom does not entail the breakdown of causality as many commentators have mistakenly supposed. On the contrary, an acausal world would be one where it is impossible to be free, as nothing would be intelligible. Nevertheless, freedom does entail a new kind of organic causality that is nonlocal, and posited with the organism itself. It is the experience of perceptual feedback consequent on one's actions that is responsible for the intuition of causality (Freeman, 1990). However, it must not be supposed that the cause or consciousness is secreted from some definite location in the brain, it is distributed and delocalized throughout the system (c.f. Freeman, 1990).
    Freedom in the present context means being true to `self', in other words, being coherent. A free act is a coherent act. Of course not all acts are free, as one is seldom fully coherent. Yet the mere possiblity of being unfree affirms the opposite, that freedom is real,
    ". . . we are free when our acts spring from our whole personality, when they express it, when they have that indefinable resemblance to it which one sometimes finds between the artist and his work."[14]
    The coherent `self' is distributed and nonlocal -- being implicated in a community of other entities with which one is entangled (Whitehead, 1925; see also Ho, 1993). Thus, being true to self does not imply acting against others. On the contrary, sustaining others sustains the self, so being true to others is also being true to self. It is only within a mechanistic Darwinian perspective that freedom becomes perverted into acts against others (see Ho, 1996e). The coherent `self' can also couple coherently to the environment so that one becomes as much in control of the environment as one is responsive. The organism thereby participates in creating its own possible futures as well as those of the entire community of organisms in the universe, much as Whitehead (1925) has envisaged.
    I venture to suggest, therefore, that a truly free individual is a coherent being that lives life fully and spontaneously, without fragmentation or hesitation, who is at peace with herself and at ease with the universe as she participates in creating, from moment to moment, its possible futures.

  45. Mae-Wan Ho is a typical example of someone being unable to grasp a certain theory because the theory is paradoxical.

    Mae-Wan Ho puts the words self and consciousness in quotes but not the word free will. All three of these words should be in quotes because they are not scientific concepts. We know about the self, consciousness, and free will because we can make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. We can comprehend free will because we have it. But we can’t explain or explicate what free will is because we can’t answer the question: What is the relationship between myself and my body?

    There is a record of success in answering scientific questions. However, there is no record of success in answering questions about the human mind. This is the theory that so many intelligent people can’t even grasp: Humans are embodied spirits.

  46. It seems to me that whenever someone is illustrating why free will is an illusion, the example they use is of a brief event, from raising one's arm to making any move within a system in which the quantum state of all relevant particles is known... I guess it's logical to try to be reductionist to understand this problem, but what about going the other way? For instance, who composed this sentence if it was not me?

  47. There is nothing logical about materialism/reductionism. They are bright ideas, but there is no evidence supporting the ideas. Likewise, there is no evidence supporting the idea that there are two kinds of substances: material and immaterial. It shows bad judgment to think something is true when there is no evidence supporting it.

    Religion produces conflict and conflict produces anxiety. Inhibition is a defense mechanism for anxiety. Materialists are inhibited from reflecting rationally about things humans know about because of our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge.

  48. I agree that we all have to explain free will. The explanation that is supported by the evidence is that there is no explanation. We can comprehend free will because we have it. But we can’t define or explicate what free will is.

  49. I agree with you - we have free will. How else do we explain all of our coherent behavior (walking, talking, raising an arm...)? But the real mystery to me is: why do so many smart people say free will is an illusion (and use raising one's arm as an example)?

  50. Free will leads to God’s existence, and religion causes anxiety. Inhibition is a defense mechanism for anxiety. People are inhibited from thinking intelligently. The following quote is from a famous psychoanalyst:

    “Let us consider for example, a person listening to a paper and having critical thoughts about it. A minor inhibition would consist in a timidity about expressing the criticism; a strong inhibition would prevent him from organizing his thoughts, with the result that they would occur to him only after the discussion was over, or the next morning. But the inhibition may go so far as not to permit the critical thoughts to come up at all, and in this case, assuming that he really feels critical, he will be inclined to accept blindly what has been said or even to admire it; and he will be quite unaware of having any inhibitions. In other words, if an inhibition goes so far as to check wished or impulses there can be no awareness of its existence. “(The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, Karen Horney, M.D., New York: Norton, 1937, p. 55 )

  51. It sounds like you're describing cognitive dissonance.

    Religion would lead people to say, yes, we have free will through the soul, but why do scientists, particularly atheistic ones, so often say free will is an illusion, as if they're combating the idea of a soul? It seems to me that the scientific way of looking at ourselves (all animals) is as biological machines, and "we" are our physical selves, especially the brain. An emergent property of the brain is the mind (apparently), which is the author of our behavior. How else does one explain purposeful behavior? It has to have an intelligent author and if it isn't us it must be something like a god.

    Sure we are influenced by many things (nature and nurture at least), but what makes people say that these influences are in fact causes? Even is one agrees that an influence is a cause (it isn't, that's why they are different words), I don't see how coherent behavior like composing a sentence could result from a cause.

  52. There is a famous quote attributed to G. K. Chesterton, “People who don’t believe in God, don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.“

  53. Although I may be late to the party, I decided to chime in. The question, of course, being whether I made the choice of my own free will.

    I'm afraid that, to me, the evidence is in and that free will is but an illusion, yet a necessary one. We do not create ourselves, and thus our actions, and in fact who "we" are, can only be a product of that which created us.

    It seems to me that the onus of proof is on those who insist that free will exists in reality, rather than as an illusion.

    Even for a theist, the same logic is at work, with the addition of God as another agent.

  54. The evidence that rational people marshal to prove humans have free will is this:

    1) It is clear that we have it when we do something that takes a lot of will power, like sticking to a diet.
    2) People who say it is an illusion live their lives as if they had free will.
    3) People who say it is an illusion are assuming that the universe consists of atoms and molecules. When confronted with evidence that contradicts this assumption they say, “Free will is an illusion.”

    1. After reading your comments, I'm still a bit unclear as to your position.

      I don't see any of the three as being particularly significant.

  55. Upon reflecting on the three bits of evidence, I'v decided that humans have free will. It is more than highly probable. I think people who don't agree have bad judgment.

    This is not just self-serving abuse of people who disagree with me. This is one of the reasons I believe in the Bible. People who don't believe in the Bible tend to have bad judgment.

  56. Frankly, I don't see how humans can have free will.

    This is due to the fact that there is really no "you" separate and distinct as a product of yourself.

    On the other hand, on your "I believe in the Bible" comment, ironically it was just that stance that Martin Luther took in coming out for determinism.

    1. I don't see how humans can have free will either. It is a mystery. We can comprehend free will because we have it. But we can't definite it because we can't explain the relationship between ourselves and our bodies. This can be expressed by saying humans are embodied spirits.

      It is not just free will that is indefinable. Take, for example, knowing that this page is white. This means more than that light is entering our eyes and a signal is going to our brains. It means an awareness of this. What is this awareness?

      Also, I can close my eyes and create an image of a red rose? Does the image take up space? Does it have mass? What are images and concepts?

    2. I'm sorry, but you seem to be missing the point.

      The point is that only if one suggests that one creates oneself can one suggest that one has free will, otherwise you are the sum total of your genetics and environment.

      My question basically asks you to suggest an answer to how one can create oneself. In other words, if I were to say 2 + 2 = 4 and suggest I don't see how there could be any other answer, it would not suggest that I had no firm foundation for suggesting that there was no other answer.

    3. Due to my ignorance of etiquette, in this case I appreciate the fact you moderate your comments.

      My response to your question is here..


    4. I could not find the answer to my questions in that link.

      I agree that these two propositions are inconsistent:
      1)Humans have free will.
      2)Humans are the sum total of our genetics and environment.
      There is no evidence supporting #2, but there is much evidence supporting # 1.

    5. Interesting.

      In terms of #2...What else?

    6. Sorry, it was in another article...Here is the example I attempted to use to make my point...

      Perhaps the following illustration will make the truth of my position a bit clearer.

      Assume for the moment that we have constructed a missile which as of yet has no guidance system. If we were to launch such a missile we might reasonably assume that one of two things might happen. If the thrust provided by the engine was powerful enough, the missile, at least initially, would proceed in the direction determined by the angle of the initial thrust followed by erratic changes of direction, or, if the power generated was not enough to result in a successful launch it might either stay on the pad, or perform erratically on the ground, rather than in the air. Whatever scenario we may choose, the missile would not be "choosing" the path of its flight.

      Likewise, if we were now to install, or program a previously installed, guidance system, the missile would still not have what one might call "freewill". Each and every "decision" made by the guidance system would depend on the choices given to it by the programmer, perhaps based on a series of "if/then" commands. In essence, the "choices" made by the guidance system would not be independent choices, no matter how skilled the programmer, but would still depend on the choices provided in the initial programming, coupled with the physical characteristics of the missile itself.

      Same site, I just don't want to link excessively, as that's not the point.

    7. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “point” and “my position.” In my mind, there are observations which requires paying attention and questions which requires intelligence. Possible answers to questions are theories. I only know and understand three theories about free will: 1) Free will is an illusion. 2) Humans have free will. 3) Free will can’t be defined.

      If you have explained another theory but I don’t understand it, it may be my fault. Or it may be your fault.

    8. You indicated that you disagreed with my suggestion that "we" are the sum of genetics and environment. I'm asking for an alternative influence which include "us", as created by "us".

    9. The alternative suggestion or theory is that it is a mystery. We can comprehend what a human being is, but we can't define or explain what a human being is. Humans are embodied spirits or indefinabilities that become conscious of their own existence.

      I think, therefore, I am. That is all we know.

    10. Perhaps so, but regardless of the answer, we "know" that we didn't create ourselves.

      I might add, even if our soul created our physical selves, this still would not mean we created ourselves.

      If we didn't create ourselves, than, while it's true we can make choices, it is also true that it is our genetics and environment which determine the choices we make.

      If there is no "you", there can be no free will.

    11. I don't understand why you say "it's true we can make choices" and "our genetics and environment determine the choices we make"?

      Isn't this just another way of saying free will is an illusion? Carl Sagan once said, "Carl Sagan is the name for a collection of molecules". Is this what you are saying?

      Why do you say, "regardless of the answer?" There is no answer. Free will is a mystery.

    12. Sorry. I missed your response.

      Well, yes, free will is an illusion. I don't think I every suggested differently.

      Free will is not a "mystery".

    13. The evidence that humans have free will:
      1) It is clear that we have it when we do somehting that takes alot of will power. Evidence that humans have free will:
      1)It is clear we have it when we do something that takes a lot of will power. It is so easy not to do it that there is no doubt we are responsible for our actions.
      2)People who say it is an illusion live their lives as if they had free will.
      3)It is obvious that people who say it is an illusion are assuming the universe consists only of atoms and molecules. When confronted with evidence this assumption is wrong, they say the evidence is an illusion.
      4)Animals do not have free will, just like they don’t ask questions and decide whether or not an hypothesis is true. In this case, free will deniers say that animals do ask questions and do decide whether or not something is true.

    14. 1. Unfortunately that doesn't prove freewill.
      2. Sure.
      3. No, as I have stated several times, either way we did not make ourselves.
      4. Sure they do, as much as we do.
      5. So far, you have really suggested nothing to support your case.
      6. My case. Either.
      A. We are simply a product of our genetics and environment...or,
      B. "God" made us...
      which means that either way there is no "I", in the sense that we had anything to do with making the I who the I is.

    15. I’v marshaled and enumerated four pieces of evidence about free will and have upon reflection decided that humans have free will. Your statement that I have not proven it means you think I have poor judgment, no? If you understand all four of my reasons, then I am saying you have bad judgment.

    16. Yet, no offense, none of them rise to the level of "evidence". Of course neither can they as "freewill" is an illusion.

      "The evidence that humans have free will:"

      "1)It is clear we have it when we do something that takes a lot of will power. It is so easy not to do it that there is no doubt we are responsible for our actions. "

      No. Example...sexual activity...biological and environmental factors may affect one's behavior while still providing "evidence" of will power.

      "2)People who say it is an illusion live their lives as if they had free will."

      Because life is about choices, again, nothing in the fact that one makes choices proves "freewill" as opposed to evidence of the influence of biology and environment.

      "3)It is obvious that people who say it is an illusion are assuming the universe consists only of atoms and molecules. When confronted with evidence this assumption is wrong, they say the evidence is an illusion."

      No, and again.....Add God, and you still have an outside force making "you" who you are.

      "4)Animals do not have free will, just like they don’t ask questions and decide whether or not an hypothesis is true. In this case, free will deniers say that animals do ask questions and do decide whether or not something is true. "

      Why don't animals have free will? Each time my dogs argue over a scrap of food they have the choice to do so or not.

    17. Great, you understand all four reasons or bits of evidence and you are unpersuaded that humans have free will. That is the best I can do.

      You are worried about offending me by implying that I have bad judgment. I am not. Nor should you be offended by my saying you have bad judgment.

      It is the nature of the human mind that we marshal evidence and decide whether an insight is true or false. Nonetheless, having bad judgment is something to be ashamed of, like being immoral.

    18. I'm not offended by your suggestion that I have bad judgement. That would obviously be your opinion. My stance could more correctly be labeled as suggesting you are using your "subjective judgement" rather than accepting the facts as they are, and applying a system of logical thought to arrive at the correct answer.

      As of yet, nothing you have provided constitutes evidence, and thus, it's true, that is the best you can do, because the evidence does not support your "subjective judgement".

      No offense, but you have continued to avoid the central issue. Who are "you"? And, as a product of other forces, of whatever nature, this "you" can only make choices and take actions prescribed by the influence of those other forces. There can be no other answer.

    19. What you call "subjective judgment," I call bad judgement. As I said, rational people judge that humans have free will.

      This gives rise to the question: What is free will? What is the self? What is the relationship between myself and my body? As you express it, "Who are 'you'".

      The evidence supports the insight that there is no answer to these questions. It is a mystery. It is difficult to understand this answer because it is paradoxical in that you know something because you don't know it. The way you can express this mystery is to say humans are embodied spirits.

  57. I wonder, who made Jerry write "his" book?

    1. The answer is obvious: the Big Bang.

    2. It takes a lot of will power to write a book. It is so easy not to write it that there is no question we are responsible for our actions.

  58. Recent events suggest that Jerry is a "bona fide" loose cannon of the first order. His attack on Krauss as an accommodationist, and immediate apologetic withdrawal when confronted by his victim is the hall mark of a loose cannon who acts without thinking and is totally devoid of a recognizable guiding strategy. Sadly, his latest victim, a misguided, ignorant young woman who made the mistake of drawing Jerry’s fire by writing an admittedly deplorable denunciation of the theory of evolution for her school newsletter did not have the “standing” to obtain an apology like the one given Krauss. What manner of professional educator goes out of his way to pillory a young woman who clearly needs guidance and education, rather than being treated to a brutal, atheistic “auto de fe.”

    My conclusion from all this is that Jerry’s opinions, at least those outside his primary field of expertise, are unworthy of the notice they are given here and elsewhere. Thus his strident support of a physiological explanation for free will is nothing more than that of a bully who has found another pulpit from which to castigate others who do not share his particular point of view. He reminds me more of a 16th Century Jesuit than a 21st Century atheist.

  59. I definitely agree with your position. Furthermore, it is very difficult for me to even imagine that people do not have free will. These notions stymie my entire thinking process insofar as it is just something that we see and do every day; therefore, to assume that they don’t exist is either scholarly misinterpretation or the fruit of a very narrow one.

    With the greatest of respect to Jerry, it seems to me that existentialism is what is being investigated here. Moreover, your extremely well-written rebuttal essay made mention of some of the greatest thinkers which led me to believe existential thought was at the core of the debate.

    So Jerry alleges that people do not have free will. Then what does he call it when people are influenced to act based on illusion? Consequently, Jerry must be reminded that the mere acts of his same species do not use free will or freedom of choice in his world. It is very hard for me to think that I am not in the position to use my will or choices or equally, choose to do nothing at all given any variable that presents “X and Y.”

    Dostoevsky’s example in "Notes from the Underground" of the man needing to visit his dentist for treatment at all costs – or simply to pronounce his free will decides not to go because he was demonstrating his free will as well as freedom of choice is for me that very act. As is getting out of the burning aircraft, wreaked vehicle, or believing or not in God.

    Alright, whew! Everything that Jerry is espousing is an oxymoron or a pure contradiction in terminology. Although he espouses that “morality is an illusion” therein lies the answer to his notion of a kinder world. Illusion is an interesting word; however, in all definitions illusion requires something of a deceptive appearance, idea, and/or sensory perceptions. It is much the same as trickery. Illusionary determinants are those which deceive the senses or mind mostly by an object appearing to exist that really is not the object at all or and perhaps more typical is the notion that the object appears to be one thing when it is in fact something completely different.

    I find that Jerry’s reasoning is tremendously flawed insofar as he suggests that we use deceptive means to produce something (an illusion) predicated upon something that is deceptive, ergo as a delusion, false impression, fantasy, or at the very least a figment of one’s imagination in decision making. Either way one chooses to build a kinder world that in itself would be something built on deception.

    I do not think you are missing anything. I certainly believe that is a kind way of dismissing Jerry’s essay of pure unadulterated rubbish.

    j.p. schilling