Biology, Philosophy, recent, Science

The Academic Quarrel over Determinism

A Professor of biology at Williams College, Luana Maroja, recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic describing her great difficulty in getting students to accept the expert consensus on many issues in her field of study. Biology has been a great source of tension in intellectual spaces for a long time now, and this doesn’t seem due to change anytime soon. More often than not, biology seems to be the lynchpin upon which the fiercest disputes among intellectuals turn. Why does biology produce so much rancour?

Sam Harris recently interviewed author Jarred Diamond on his podcast. During the course of that discussion, Diamond revealed that he had been forced to increase security at his personal residence when some colleagues threatened him 10 years ago. Additionally, he had two bodyguards accompany him to a university lecture after an “angry anthropologist” threatened to disrupt his remarks.

Diamond hasn’t been an enthusiastic promoter of biological explanations for human affairs. On the contrary, his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, vigorously disputed the notion that biology alone can explain the power and wealth of nations and ethnic groups. Diamond offers a comprehensive overview of the mechanisms by which ecology and geography have provided people in some parts of the world, particularly Europe, with an unfair advantage. And yet, this has hardly endeared Diamond to the academic enemies of biological determinism.

Diamond attests that the vitriolic criticism he has endured is partly because his hypothesis supports “geographic determinism” and his adversaries are hostile towards a view of history and society which implies that the “human spirit counts for nothing.”

This identifies the crux of the great modern-day “war of ideas.” Some intellectuals pursue accuracy because they require certainty, and this need lends itself to a belief in determinism. Academic disdain for determinism caused biological explanations of human behavior to fall out of vogue among the intelligentsia during the twentieth century. Consequently, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill are held in higher esteem than Charles Darwin when it comes to understanding human affairs.

A Fundamental Clash

The great political economists held that our trials and our triumphs are our own responsibility. For biological determinists, they are encoded in our DNA sequence. In a deterministic worldview, whatever happens comes down to something that is written somewhere. Biology lends itself to determinism. The development of quantum physics created new and vexing problems for the deterministic worldview, and led some of the world’s eminent physicists to conclude that the universe contains “irreducible uncertainty.”

Albert Einstein disagreed. He believed everything in the universe to be pre-determined, including the result of a coin toss, and the roll of a die. Einstein and his contemporary Niels Bohr engaged in a public scholarly rivalry over their differing interpretations of quantum mechanics. Bohr asserted that we could not know the position and velocity of a sub-atomic particle simultaneously with any certainty. Einstein said that we could. Bohr thought that the probability of a sub-atomic particle’s location was irreducible to any kind of certainty about its location. Einstein thought that we were yet to derive the formulation that provides us with certainty.

Today, most professional physicists believe that processes at the sub-atomic scale don’t always occur in a definite, linked sequence of cause and effect events. The future cannot be precisely known or determined from the present. Nevertheless, some intellectuals remain loyalists to Einstein’s view. During a recent appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Eric Weinstein argued that we haven’t discovered fundamental uncertainty at the quantum level; we’ve only discovered meaningless answers to bad questions. The mathematical problems that quantum physicists sought to solve were poorly framed or understood, and this is why their solutions don’t yield definite answers.

A Challenge to Two Centuries of Intellectual History

The quarrel over biology comes down to something very simple; determinists hope to obtain the clearest possible picture of what is currently happening and what will happen next. What could possibly be wrong with trying to verify the exact impact that a particular DNA strand will have on a person’s future and with other similar lines of inquiry?

Many—if not the majority of—intellectuals do indeed believe that there’s something wrong with this, because they understand the profundity of the philosophical and cultural revolution that has occurred. People have cast off destiny in favour of agency. We no longer suppose that a God or forces beyond our control are dictating who will rule a country, who will till a field, who will serve tea, who will live and who will die. We place ever-greater faith in the decisions of individuals. We have rejected a world in which decision is the providence of the few. We have accepted that we don’t know where everyone should live, what they should study, and how they should dress, and so we leave it up to them.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many intellectuals dislike the idea that biology plays a determinative role in human affairs. With a DNA-driven view of the social world, we risk resigning ourselves to fatalism. Our future is no longer written in the stars. Now it’s written in our DNA. They contend that applying scientific knowledge and understanding to a broad array of social issues (a process they call “scientism”) also erodes our agency. It’s no longer the word of God that determines exactly how we should live; now it’s the latest findings in medicine and cognitive neuroscience.

A Predetermined Meeting of the Minds between Antiquity and Modernity

Sam Harris has adamantly argued against the existence of free will. He notes that a theory of free will presupposes that before we make a decision something occurs inside of us that is completely separate from the cause and effect chain of events preceding it in the outside world. Whatever occurs inside of us must be completely different from a random roll of the dice, as well. Given the absurdity of such a mental process, Harris rejects the possibility of its existence. This view is actually very close to the majority of philosophers and scientists who think about such things. To argue otherwise seems to flirt with pseudoscience or magical thinking.

Regardless of the truth of whether our actions are subject to determinism or individual will, it certainly doesn’t feel like our actions are being dictated by a script that has already been written. When it comes time to make a decision it doesn’t seem as though we’re watching our self in the third person and helplessly wondering, “What will he do now?” It feels as though we are making a decision in real time for which we must take moral responsibility. Making a choice doesn’t feel remotely similar to watching someone else make a choice. This sense of things is dismissed as an illusion by serious, contemporary neuroscientists. Laboratory evidence and coherent reasoning, they say, demand it.

Still, the universe is full of things that seem irrefutably evident and yet can’t be well explained or understood. Sam Harris has also devoted much attention to consciousness. Why does it exist and what exactly is it? How does something become “aware” of something else? Godel’s incompleteness theorems indicate that there are truths about numbers that cannot be proven through calculation or computation. In math and physics there are singularities; times and places where all “rules” break down or don’t seem to apply. Is it far-fetched to suppose that conscious choice is real, but rules, processes, and definitions don’t apply?

It’s easy to understand why a belief in pre-destination has been, and continues to be, so widespread across cultures. In The Poetic Edda, a character justifies why they are embarking on a risky mission with the words: “On one day all my lifespan was shaped, all my days laid down.” There is no risk. What will happen, will happen. In the second season of the docuseries Tales by Light, Natte—a young man from Varanasi in India—says, “I work for food, to make ends meet. Tomorrow my destiny could change. It all depends on God. If it is written in your destiny it will occur. If it is not written, it will not occur.” Pre-destination has profound moral and psychological consequences for people in dire circumstances.

When Sam Harris defends his position on free will, the moral implications of his view are among his most important considerations—so much folly, misfortune, and tragedy are ultimately no one’s fault. Accepting our lack of freedom should give us cause for greater compassion and understanding.

And in that case, we may need to prepare ourselves for a torrent of behaviour that makes compassion and understanding all the more essential. In modern democratic nations, uncultivated and highly educated people alike scoff at genetic explanations for human behaviour. If people were perfectly at ease with notions of determinism—genetic and ultimate—what kind of behaviour could we expect from them?

Prisoners in Chains, all Preordained?

Needless to say, there is substantial evidence that people who believe in free will, or at least believe that they are in control of their own lives, are more prone to exhibit good mental health and productive, ethical behaviour. There is a not inconsiderable moral dilemma here. As we illuminate the role of DNA and other fixed factors, we will acquire knowledge that should allow us to improve and save countless lives. On the other hand, if more and more people come to accept the idea that they’re not choosing their thoughts and actions, their subsequent behaviour may guarantee that a lot more lives are in need of saving.

Thinkers like Harris and Weinstein are preoccupied with how we build a less risky world, which may be partly why their thinking appeals to conservatives. However, it is worth remembering the well-established relationship between risk and reward, because whether or not we believe in free will may turn out to be the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, any professional gambler worth their salt should bet on free will. There is just too much about the universe that we don’t understand, and the potential pay-off from agency is staggering.

 

William Edwards is founder of Bright Tapestry Data, a company pushing back on misinformation and fake news. He is an independent scholar, with a Master’s in Experimental Psychology. You can find him on LinkedIn here.

215 Comments

  1. Geary Johansen says

    Great article.

    I think there have to be at least three layers to this issue. The genetics of the individual. The way that the environment interacts with the individual (the most important factor being food during early development, but also culture, education, etc). And the ways that sociocentric and environmental forces feedback into the system to effect long term changes in genetics. Two recent things I have discovered have fascinated me. First (thanks to Jonathan Haidt), that in the last 50,000 years our rate of genetic adaption has accelerated, as our nature as social creatures has had a more profound effect on our genetics. Second, that our individual genetic heritability of IQ increases with age, as individuals with inherent potential naturally seek out and pursue individuals and interests that stimulate their intellects. The really interesting thing about this second point, is that there is no way we can assume or expect that all individuals or groups reach the estimated 80% of their potential, uniformly…

    But one thing I would like to ask the biologist out there, having read Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Children series, is about speciation versus gradation. I understand that most think that we evolved into distinct species gradually, over time, but could there be something at play concerning emergent utility? I was thinking about this in relation to border collies. If a minor mutation occurs that happens to be of benefit to the individual in it’s environment, could sex selection and elimination, interact with benign coincides within the genome, as the mutation spreads through the population, to optimise the advantage of the new beneficial trait? Because, getting back to that first mutated collie, I seriously doubt that the first maternal grandsire what as prodigiously more intelligent than other dogs, as modern border collies are… I would really, really appreciate any links or explanations in brief to point me towards whether this would work and how it would work. Because it really would dovetail into the concept for my sci fi novel quite nicely…

    • David of Kirkland says

      There was no pre-Border Collie followed immediately by a puppy that was a Border Collie.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      @G J

      ‘……I have discovered ….(thanks to Jonathan Haidt), that in the last 50,000 years our rate of genetic adaption has accelerated, as our nature as social creatures has had a more profound effect on our genetics…….’

      Haidt shouldn’t be your go-to guy for understanding cultural and biological evolution in humans. You would do better to start with this issue of Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London:

      Volume 373; Issue 1743; 5 April 2018
      Theme issue ‘Bridging cultural gaps: interdisciplinary studies in human cultural evolution’ compiled and edited by Oren Kolodny, Marcus W. Feldman and Nicole Creanza
      link: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/toc/rstb/373/1743

      I particularly recommend the last article in the issue by Marcus W. Feldman and Sohini Ramachandran: ‘Missing compared to what? Revisiting heritability, genes and culture’

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Jack B. Nimble

        Great. Thanks.

    • Stephanie says

      Geary, if I’m understanding you correctly, your question boils down to uniformitarianism versus catastrophism. I’m not a biologist, but I heard a biologist analogize recently that the transition between species is like the transition between stages of growth. We have the concept of “baby,” “infant,” “toddler,” “child,” ect, but you couldn’t pinpoint an exact day where an infant becomes a toddler, say. In the same way, changes in a species are understood to be gradual, and the concept of “species” is just how we group the changes we observe in the fossil record.

      However, this is certainly biased by the fossil record. A fossil deposit like at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, will yield a new species every field season. The extremely small sample size and bias of the fossil record means we should be very sceptical about estimates of speciation and extinction rates. We also can’t be sure that speciation doesn’t happen in sort of a catastrophic way, punctuated equilibrium. Rapid changes in the environment can cause rapid changes in life.

    • Ryan says

      Like many forms of categorization blurry at the edges more defined toward the middle. When does someone transition from childhood to adulthood. We all agree a 9 year old is a child and a 30 year old is an adult. Somewhere in between we define an arbitrary transition point such as 18. Of course there is nothing magically different about the last day of your 17th year on Earth and your first day of your 18th year of life. Carving nature at her joints is a messy affair.

    • William P. says

      We have a limited free will –

      I have free will as long as it agrees with that of my master; a will directed by worldly influence, or Gods will.

      • Yeppit Yeffen says

        What are boundaries in free will? I think we neeed more information from Edwaerd Snowden! Where is all the information he down.loaded in terms of “free.will”??????????????????
        [who.wants.to.see.it]

        Sci-Fi????
        1:54
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IE_8596AYsk

        |

        speech*.+freedom platform toronto peterson podcast

        John M. Smart – Futurist & Foresight Keynote Speaker …
        3:06 PM

  2. david doyal says

    Is it possible for an individual to pretend to believe something is true, even if they know it is not? If not…..what is the author suggesting? What shall be done? By whom?

    • Doug Deeper says

      To live a life and not believe in free will eliminates morality. The author states a falsehood as far as I know, that conservatives like what Harris and Weinstein say about free will- that there is none. I see exactly the opposite, conservatives believe
      In both morality and free will. One
      Only has to read George Gilder, astrophysics Paul Davies, Roger Penrose, biologist E. O. Wilson, or Jordan Peterson to learn an enlightened view of free will and consciousness.

  3. Richard W Besecke says

    Why must it be one or the other? Why can’t we be prone to certain outlooks as a result of neurological programming, environmental factors, and social influences, but still have the ability to make our own decisions deviating from those if we recognize a more constructive path?
    As for saying “conservatives” like Determinism, I have to disagree. I can see it appealing to those of strong religious conviction, but those I interact with who self-identify as Conservative on a socio-political spectrum strongly feel self-determination is vital, especially to concepts of morality. If our decisions are made for us, there is no value in them, and we shouldn’t face consequences for anything we choose to do or not do. That is an abhorrent perspective.

    • GeorgeQTyrebyter says

      Agree – it has nothing to do with conservatism or liberalism. After all, we are bombarded every day with ludicrous moronic librul dummies telling us that Trump is responsible for all manner of things.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed. While it may be true that ideas come from deep in the brain (regardless, it’s my brain, not under other people’s or spirit’s control), appearing before I can speak of the idea, that has nothing to do with whether the idea was generated by me, accept/rejected by me, considered a clear choice vs. a measure one, etc. Until you can predict my choices in advance, I’ll reject the notion that something else decides other than me.

        • Locketopus says

          There have been experiments where a machine read brainwaves and predicted the choice the person would make 7 seconds before the person was consciously aware of the choice they would make.

          What makes you think a low-stakes choice such as choosing a button to push at random, with no subsequent consequences, has anything at all in common with (e.g.) deciding to push the button that launches a nuclear bomb?

          Indeed, it appears that the authors themselves were careful to address this possibility.

          I don’t think it’s controversial at all that much of our daily routine is done on “autopilot”. Most of us have probably experienced something like mistakenly taking the turn that leads to our former home, or heading down the hallway that leads to our former office.

          The fact that we delegate such rote activities to the subconscious say nothing at all about whether we make important decisions that way.

          • Locketopus says

            Okay, skimmed the paper.

            The subjects were instructed to push the button when they “felt the urge” to do so.

            That’s pretty much a recipe for delegating the task to subconscious levels of the brain.

            It is quite unlikely (bordering on preposterous) that they would have seen such a delay if the instructions had been “add these numbers and press the left button if the sum is odd, and the right button if the sum is even” or “press the button when an image of Spiderman appears on the screen.”

          • Steve Harris says

            Imagine duplicating a person faced with a difficult choice, and their environment, too. Do they both do the same thing always? So that if we stopped or stopped or slowed time for one we could use the other for perfect prediction? If so, that’s determinism. Variation for no mechanical reason is an element if randomness (perhaps quantum).

            Free will lies in some kind of excluded middle between these choices. I can’t even define it. It makes no sense.

      • Steve J says

        You are deciding. You just can’t control the decision making process. This is a critical distinction and for me makes the entire free will argument semantics.

        • Locketopus says

          Ah… so a modern-day version of “The Devil made me do it.”, then.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Richard W Besecke

      “Why must it be one or the other? ”

      Yes, why? Especially since everyone knows it’s both.

      “As for saying “conservatives” like Determinism, I have to disagree.”

      Me too. It is conservatives who believe in self-determination.

    • Kris says

      “Why must it be one or the other?”
      Because they are mutually exclusive. What you describe is a system with freewill, i.e. not deterministic. If freewill exists at ANY level, then the system is not deterministic. That’s why it has to be one or the other.
      “As for saying “conservatives” like Determinism, I have to disagree.”
      No one said that though. In the article it said that conservatives tend to like Harris and Weinstein’s ideas, because they are based on building a less risky world. The fact that they also promote determinism has very little to do with a reader liking their risk-lowering ideas. There might be a correlation in the end (risk-lowering values->deterministic models) but it’s definitely not the same as saying “conservatives like determinism”.

      • Martin28 says

        “Because they are mutually exclusive. What you describe is a system with freewill, i.e. not deterministic.”

        Prove that if freewill exists on any level, there are no determinations. For example, suppose a human has free will, but lives in a body with limits. That body determines those limits, and nothing the human can do can free the human from those limits. But the human has agency within the parameters of her or her limits. That’s a reality with aspects of both free will and determination.

        Second, when you say “a system,” you are supposing “one system.” Prove that there is only one system. Religions assume both a spiritual world and a physical world, and the physical world has many aspects.

        I agree with the simplest and most common sense explanation that aspects of life are deterministic and random. And that nobody can prove otherwise. And that we all live our lives as if life is both deterministic and random—even those who believe one or the other. What’s the point in taking an absolutist position when you act as if that it not true?

      • Locketopus says

        Because they are mutually exclusive.

        Sure. And light can either consist of discrete particles, or it can be a wave phenomenon traveling through a medium. Since those are mutually exclusive, it can’t possibly be both.

        Except that it is.

      • Curious says

        “If freewill exists at ANY level, then the system is not deterministic. That’s why it has to be one or the other.”

        I don’t understand why so many people are having trouble with this idea. Commenters whose other posts I generally admire can’t seem to grasp this simple truism. To those to whom this applies: instead of responding with analogies and metaphors, or pointless challenges, please try explaining directly why this is not correct.

        • Curious says

          PS: the idea that there is no conflict between determinism and free will is “compatibilism”. Daniel Dennett took a (IMHO unsuccessful) crack at it in “Freedom Evolves”. There are other approaches (search “compatibilism”; Stanford encyclopedia is a decent place to start). Compatibilists are a distinct minority, and most serious philosophers think they must rely on inadequate definitions of free will and/or determinism.

          • Peter from Oz says

            Curious
            SUrely the point is that dt determinism works up to a certain point by limiting choices, then free will is engaged in making the choices.

          • NashTiger says

            I thought it was called “Calvinism”

        • Stephanie says

          “If freewill exists at ANY level, then the system is not deterministic. That’s why it has to be one or the other.”

          That’s just an extremist view of determinism, isn’t it? Perhaps these are the sorts of knots you can get yourself twisted into when you go down a philosophical rabbit hole, but on a biological level it probably functions more like probabilities. Your genetics and upbringing can greatly increase the chance you will develop alcoholism, but your personal choices can realise the less probable outcome.

          Is there anyone who really believes (outside of religious wonks) that it is predetermined which sperm cell will inseminated which egg? That there is no randomness in the universe? If a person is subjected even occasionally to a random universe, they are faced with situations for which prior experiences are an incomplete guide, and they must choose between the options their past experiences present.

          • Curious says

            “That’s just an extremist view of determinism, isn’t it?”
            Not at all. It’s actually quite commonplace.

            “on a biological level it probably functions more like probabilities. Your genetics and upbringing can greatly increase the chance you will develop alcoholism, but your personal choices can realise the less probable outcome.”
            No pun intended, right? Probably works probabilistically? Seriously, though, this is the precisely the issue. A determinist would argue that it looks probabilistic to us because we a not omniscient, but ultimately it all boils down to fundamental laws. There is no wiggle room. See: Laplace’s demon.

            “Is there anyone who really believes (outside of religious wonks) that it is predetermined which sperm cell will inseminated which egg? That there is no randomness in the universe?”
            Absolutely plenty. Again, it’s commonplace among scientists and philosophers. In fact, I would wager that it is the “religious wonks”, as you say, who are more prone to belief in free will.

    • Rosenmops says

      Maybe everything is determined, but it is useful for us to believe it is not completely determined. Believing we have some control might help us to try harder and to be braver and more adventurous.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Rosenmops

        The best refutation I know of the nonsense that there is no free will is to ask someone who believes that to spend one day following their own doctrine. Make no decisions, because they are already foreordained. Exert no effort, because what will be will be regardless. Restrain yourself in no way, because you can’t change your behavior in any case. Turn off the illusions of agency and decision and consciousness and will and effort and self-control and just flow thru the day rather the way a bacterium does. Try it some time.

        • dmm says

          @Ray. The determinist would just say that the decision to stop making choices was predetermined, as well as all subsequent decisions to continue or not The fact that most would not like the likely consequences explains why they don’t do this, and is a different subject.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @dmm

            But it gets almost comical doesn’t it? What we end up with is: free will doesn’t exist, but we have to live our lives as tho it did. You may as well say that gravity does not exist but we need to pretend that it does at each and every point of our physical existence. We get this sort of stuff from the same people who tell us that consciousness doesn’t exist. No? Ok, it doesn’t, but is sure seems to exist at every moment of my waking life. If an illusion is omnipresent and if it becomes impossible to do without the illusion, then it seems to me that the illusion is as real as anything can be. What more is to be asked?

          • dmm says

            @Ray. The simple explanation is that, even if someone believes determinism is true, they can’t be certain about it, and it certainly doesn’t feel true. Therefore, they try to behave rationally to achieve their goals just like someone who believes it’s not true. Even if they’re certain it’s true, it’s still just a belief. It’s very hard to override one’s instinct to pursue one’s self-interest for the sake of an intellectual belief. After all, how many atheists just lay down to die because life has no objective meaning, i.e. all their actions are ultimately meaningless? Nah, they just make up their own meaning, so they don’t have to face the consequences of their belief.

    • BillyJoe says

      “Why can’t we be prone to certain outlooks as a result of neurological programming, environmental factors, and social influences, but still have the ability to make our own decisions deviating from those if we recognize a more constructive path?”

      But what is the mechanism of freewill then? Of course, it we were to come up with a mechanism that would be tantamount to saying that there is no free will. Because, presumably, to be free, freewill must be free of mechanism. But what is the alternative then? The only alternative is something like a “coin toss”. But how can that possibly give us freewill?

      This shows that the very concept of freewill is incoherent.

      • derek says

        I mentioned it below, but you can change your brain chemistry by thinking about something. You make decisions every day where you are presented with alternatives, and you decide. The decisions may have some import, may not. Habits are formed by repeating the same decisions; you can decide to make something a habit.

        I train people in a complex technical trade. Through practice and study people change their way of thinking, which leads them to make different decisions about things.

        I have yet to run into an automaton.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @BillyJoe

        “This shows that the very concept of freewill is incoherent.”

        It is incoherent with the mechanical view of the universe, but perhaps that view is wrong.

    • Rob says

      I think most reasonable people who aren’t captured by tribal ideology recognize that some combination if heritable traits, socialization, and free will all influence our behaviour. Even those academics who attack Diamond or Steven Pinker would admit, if forced to be honest, that children inherent traits from their parents.

      But ideology and partisanship do strange things to discourse. Many feel they have to take an all-or-nothing, polararized stance or their loyalty to the tribe will be cast into doubt.

    • Peter Carruthers says

      On what basis would you make that “own decision”? Are you making it as a result of some experiece or insight unavailable to the rest of your brain? Is there a ‘me’ inside that governs and monitors the rest of the brain’s decision making?

  4. “Einstein thought that we were yet to derive the formulation that provides us with certainty.”
    Such scientism places so much of its faith in the future, like politics and religion. Such faith is impressive but rather blind and often intolerant of those who do not share it.

    “Sam Harris has adamantly argued against the existence of free will.”
    I KNEW he’d say that!
    The definition of free will given by the author is absurdly broad and unlike any I’ve seen before. Free will means choice and responsibilty. It does not mean doing the impossible and having no limits.

    • “Free will means choice and responsibilty. It does not mean doing the impossible and having no limits”

      Thank you. Totally agree.

  5. GeorgeQTyrebyter says

    The issue is really “reductionism” – that everything is due to a cause, and we can determine what that cause is. As a statistician who works with medical data, I have grown over the years more and more reluctant to come down hard on any single cause. Yes, for Lyme disease, there is a cause – a single organism from the bite of a tick. But for mass murder by a single individual? There are many forces which bend the thoughts of that person to a bad end. For schizophrenia? For obesity? For most of these, there are a series of events which combine over time to produce an outcome.

    The best thing that we can do as lay scientists is to consider that events may be the result of several causal influences. Enough with the reduction to a single, simplistic idea.

    • Rosenmops says

      Why do you think that having multiple causes undermines determinism?

      • Curious says

        “Why do you think that having multiple causes undermines determinism?”

        Indeed. Imagine throwing a rubber ball into crowded traffic. No rational person believes that the ultimate resting place of the ball is indeterminate or that it is determined by one cause.

  6. Geary Johansen says

    Guys, biological determinism in the modern political context tends to mean things like there are no cognitive differences between men and women, when the single biggest difference is men like things and women like people. The Left, particularly feminists, tend to get crazy if you suggest that the differences between men and women are biological- they believe it’s all socially constructed- i.e. Western Patriarchal oppression of women by men.

    • Harland says

      The problem with having a negative attitude towards an empirical viewpoint is that doing so then makes it justifiable to limit people’s rights. If one’s subjective experience is raised to the status of a godhead (as postmodernists essentially posit) then any perceived verbal offense could be construed as being literally violent towards the self. And since the words a person uses, to postmodernists, cause actual harm it is therefore rational to pass laws to limit the rights of those using said words.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Alright, but if anybody starts talking about toxic masculinity and the biological imperative for males to be violent and cold, you want none of that. You all suddenly proclaim yourselves individuals free of any biological or social definition that paints you negatively. But women are biologically determined to be weak and hysterical, no problem.

      “The problem with having a negative attitude towards an empirical viewpoint…” Do we have to run down the long list of behaviors and characteristics that have, at one time or another, been empirically settled? Homosexuality as a mental illness? Blacks as subhuman? Women as constitutionally too delicate and irrational for the affairs of men? And on, and on…

      • memetic tribe says

        @nakotomi plaza

        Toxic masculinity is a made up phrase used by propagandists to enforce the new leftist social norms. There is no measurable quantity of “masculine toxicity”. Toxic means deadly. DDT is toxic to an Osprey and can be measured. Mercury is toxic to Striped Bass in the Hudson River and can be measured (bioaccumulation). Masculine toxicity is seemingly determined by a consensus of blue check twitter accounts and used randomly. It is not a measurable quantity but rather a cultivated social phenomenon.

        Masculinity is good. Men compete with each other to attain status in the top 20% of the male hierarchy. That’s the percentage of men that 80% of women find desirable. I don’t mean to sound toxic, but this pareto principle enforced societal order in the centuries before birth control and child murder was legalized.

        Also, the fact that there may be differences in racial intelligence and physical ability does not necessarily mean preference of one race over the other. It’s not a “superiority” determination. Geographically distinct populations develop distinct traits. This is obvious when a white person is declared a white supremacist during a conversation about race and IQ. Hard to be a white supremacist when east Asians have the highest IQ, and whites readily admit that.

        • NashTiger says

          Differences among populations mean nothing when evaluating individuals, only the probability that one will be taller, faster, or smarter before the individuals are identified.

      • Robert Franklin says

        “the biological imperative for males to be violent and cold”

        And yet the overwhelming majority of men and boys are neither. Your belief that they are, against all the empirical evidence, says much about you, but essentially nothing either about males and masculinity or the subject of this article.

    • Rosenmops says

      “Guys, biological determinism in the modern political context tends to mean things like there are no cognitive differences between men and women”

      Haven’t you got that backwards? Biological determinism means there ARE cognitive differences between men and women.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Rosenmops

        Thanks for the correction. My proofreading has been terrible today. A bad night’s sleep and too much coffee is always a terrible combination for me.

  7. Sheesh! I just spent 15 years arguing with Calvinists over the evils of a deterministic god. The concept is authoritarian because somebody has to be the philosopher king for the peasants.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @lydia00

      I just spent 15 years arguing with Calvinists…

      I’ve logged about 10 years myself, although we tend to touch on a litany of issues (including the problem of evil) pertaining to the argument from free will, e.g., molinism, the seemingly paradoxical state of Adam/Eve’s free will, logical order of God’s decree. To his credit, my buddy (the Calvinists) is a really good dude and not to mention fairly bright, so I always our conversations. At any rate, when I saw your post it gave me a laugh, so I thought I’d respond to let you know you’re not alone.

  8. Harland says

    The real reason is that if it were ever admitted that European whites were good for something, it would hand a victory to the Left’s worst enemies. This outcome must be avoided at any cost. Particularly, the cost to POC who get in the way and who get cancelled as well. The Left will do anything to avoid the outcome of science objectively determining that their treasured myths are false. Up to and including denying the fact that objective outcomes exist in the first place.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Evidence of determinism? Every article on here, regardless of the topic, will result in some tool turning it into a complete condemnation of the left, no matter how bizarre or unsupported. It’s an ironclad guarantee.

      And the irony, as always, is a mile deep: “The Left will do anything to avoid the outcome of science objectively determining that their treasured myths are false.” Yea, it’s the left that’s desperately defending their myths. Not you guys, no. Never you guys. You guys are objectively right about everything, as though somebody actually believing this wouldn’t be a fucking, self-deluded nut. But it’s the left living in denial of reality. Yea, let’s go with that.

      • ” But it’s the left living in denial of reality. Yea, let’s go with that. ”

        Nuf said.

    • Vassos Zem says

      @Harland

      Did you notice this slip (I trust it was a slip):

      ‘Diamond offers a comprehensive overview of the mechanisms by which ecology and geography have provided people in some parts of the world, particularly Europe, with an unfair advantage.’

      ‘Unfair’ advantage? It had an advantage, but why was this ‘unfair’? Anyone a foot taller than me and with better hand-eye coordination has an advantage over me at basketball. What does ‘fairness’ have to do with it? They should play on their knees?

      Diamond proposes that the domestication of plants and animals first got underway in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and then moved both east and west along lines of longitude. This is because the climate on Earth is broadly similar along lines of longitude, but not along lines of latitude, which hampered the spread of agricultural technology north and south. Did the peoples of the Middle East also have an ‘unfair’ advantage? If so, why was this not also stated?

      • Closed Range says

        Vassos

        Yes – I also noticed that “unfair” stood out like a sore thumb. History has nothing to do with fairness. And since more people across the whole world now enjoy better lives than ever before, with less famine, death, war and disease, we would be crazy to view European development as anything less than a miracle.

      • Pedant (per Russell) says

        Uh, it’s lines of latitude that run east-west. Lines of longitude run north-south. Cultivars spread east-west along lines of latitude and across lines of longitude (per Diamond).

  9. Pingback: The Academic Quarrel over Determinism | The American Tory

  10. Metamorf says

    I don’t know why this is an issue. If Sam Harris is right, he can’t help but believe what he does and write what he does. What’s the point of arguing with someone who can’t help but think what he thinks?

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Metamorf

      Because he can’t help but debating it with you as well, and if it is written that he will change his mind then that too will happen. Remember that the arguments he will have are also determined as is their outcome. Sam might change his mind, it’s just that he will have no choice but to change his mind.

      • Metamorf says

        So why is there any issue, for anyone? You can’t help commenting, and neither can I. We’re all just ‘bots, right? An “issue” — that is, a question — of any sort presupposes an agent for whom the question can be decided one way or another, which in turn presupposes the concept of “will”. But if you think that you and everyone you communicate with is just a bot, why bother?

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Metamorf

          Because we have no choice but to bother ; – )

          • Metamorf says

            Or, we ALL bother because Sam Harris et al are wrong, and don’t really believe themselves that agency or will don’t matter. Here’s a clue: it’s possible BOTH that we are determined and that we’re “free” — a conundrum, the way out of which is via different contexts or orientations toward experience.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Metamorf

            “and don’t really believe themselves that agency or will don’t matter”

            It is a very strange thing that intelligent people will say very silly things and seem to believe them even tho a moment’s reflection reveals them to be silly. It is comparable to Ayn Rand saying that there is no such thing as altruism (because everything you do you want to do therefore you are doing it because you want to so you are being selfish). It’s the same sort of word magic logical granny knot. In a sort of Godel’s incompleteness, we can’t disprove these silly statements, but they are silly none the less.

      • bingo. Same approach I used with Calvinists. God determines if you change your mind, so what’s the point. The discussion is pointless. The human is basically taken out of the equation.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @lydia00

          All my life I’ve wanted to understand Calvinism and I just can’t get it done.

        • Cranky Badger says

          This is wrong: you can learn, and head down a different causal road.

  11. Eigen Eagle says

    People like Sam Harris like to bring up that certain thoughts materialize before you’re even aware of them. The problem with that is that you’ve introduced a “you” there. What is the “you”? We get thoughts and impulses popping into our minds all the time, it doesn’t mean we yield to them.

    I’m not some social justice warrior that finds the very idea of determinism repugnant, but neuroscience is a lot like psychology in that it has a very inflated view of it’s own understanding of the things it studies and it’s ability to make useful predictions on its body of knowledge, so I take a lot of this with a grain of salt.

    I basically agree with Roger Penrose (one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century) that our consciousness will prove to not be codeable and our brains either must have some kind of modality of function that’s either quantum or non-physical (he obviously prefers the former, I’m not that rigid).

  12. Richard Aubrey says

    Sort of OT. Sowell’s “Conquests and Cultures” is better than “Guns,. Germs and Steel”.

  13. Millions of factors have an impact on your destiny and human beings like to boil them down to just one. DNA and biology determine your destiny. Character is destiny. Technology shapes human destiny. Personally I think the unconscious mind actually makes all your decisions, including major life decisions, with the conscious mind just rationalizing the decision after the fact. Your unconscious mind is a major unknown factor with agency. In other words, the unconscious mind is an unseen thing with agency, or spirit, so there is such a thing as spiritual determinism.

  14. Reluctant reactionary says

    There is a lot of binary determinism in the comments (less so in the article). Either everything is determined or nothing is and if we believe the former then we jump straight to race and if we believe the later then gender is a social construct. I tend to the biological explanation for 80% of human behavior, the other 20% is not unimportant just not as absolute as the social construct looneys think it is. There is more variation within groups and more overlap between groups than difference without and sameness within. That’s before and after geography, upbringing and culture. Bottom line how can we rise to the better angels of our nature if we deliberately ignore/misunderstand that very nature. Other points, I hope Harris was being rhetorical or he is a fool. His brain wiring is mostly set yet still randomly changing every day I am no physicist but for Einstein to be right then there has to be infinite perfection in every electron, neutron and photon etc and they interact perfectly (albeit with extreme complexity) as well. I might be wrong but I thought that if there werent imperfection in the mass of the great expansion after the big bang then there would be no galaxies, planets or us and the universe would just be a homogeneous blob of energy.

  15. Klaus C. says

    “Regardless of the truth of whether our actions are subject to determinism or individual will”

    The two concepts are not incompatible. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of “individual will”; it only becomes nonsensical if one tacks the word “free” onto it.

    We are obviously creatures of will, but “will” is itself by definition a deterministic process, and is a product of other such processes, and brings many others into existence.

    Our ability to make complex decisions sets into motion all kinds of deterministic processes that would not otherwise exist, and has changed this planet vastly from it was like before we came along.

  16. Rob G says

    Recall reading the late neurosurgeon Dr Wilder Penfield’s “Mystery of the Mind” in which he noted how he was drawn to the conclusion – after working with thousands of patients – “There is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrode stimulation will cause a patient to believe or decide.” [p77]

    Patients were always able to distinguish between volitional and violationally initiated events – even in the context of external initiation occurring within their brains.

    Penfield noted “Philosophers of a certain school would, no doubt, silence me before I began to discuss the mind and brain … They declare that since the mind cannot, by its very nature, have a position in space, there is only one phenomenon to be considered, namely, the brain …. Like all such hypotheses, one should undertake to prove, or disprove it, without initial prejudice.” [ex preface].

    This suggests that all that is required to build the case for the deterministic perspective is to point to at least one case where a human being has had their mind changed through electrode stimulation.

    Then there is the philosophical angle: why would one want to choose to try and prove that all choice is an illusion? If true choice doesn’t exist, proof itself is rendered meaningless. Etc. That is only scratching the surface here.

  17. cfkane1941 says

    “Diamond offers a comprehensive overview of the mechanisms by which ecology and geography have provided people in some parts of the world, particularly Europe, with an unfair advantage.”

    There’s a word in this sentence that bothers me. Unfair. That word implies some sort of agency on the part of those who have the advantage. Europe has more water, gentler seasons, arable land, resources that could be exploited economically. The Middle East and Africa do not. That’s a simple fact of existence. It is an advantage, but not an unfair one. What happened to the Middle East and Africa, colonialism, etc., is regrettable, and that’s probably where the author feels justified in using the word “unfair.”

    But you can’t indict a continent’s people because the land is more geared toward supporting life. That’s just screaming at the trees, or in this case, at the tectonic plates.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ cfkane 1941- love the movie reference, Spencer Tracy ‘Inherit the Wind’ more on topic though.:)

      Great comment. I think it’s the Lefts mistaken belief that all capital is theft, or extraction economics, rather than mutually beneficial trade, as is much more often the case. It overlooks the fact that when the British first began trading in India, before Empire, they paid with silver obtained from other beneficial trade. Or that rice and grains are the more successful crops for agriculture, by far, with rice being the clear winner, calorifically speaking. That China might have been first to industrialise, if only their rivers had the capacity to carry coal to the wealthier coastal areas mentioned in the opening chapters of ‘The Wealth of Nations’.

      But it seems to me that what the Leftists would really want is equality of geography. And of course this is before we consider the role of the first horseman, Pestilence, in shaping civilisation, with 17°C (alt + 0176 on the numbers pad!), the magic cut off number. Tropical diseases were an incredible impediment to ancient societies progressing beyond a certain point. It is perhaps telling that British Officers, with the grim humour common to soldiers, used to toast to ‘Bloody wars and dread disease’ as an allusion to the principal means of their advancement…

      • dirk says

        @Geary: indeed, around that 17 degrees Celsius, the average springtime, autumn and summer temperatures of large parts of the USA, though, the original inhabitants did not come very far with civilisation and western work ethos, as did their counterparts in Europe. Neither in the lands of Djengis Khan. And in China, yes, a lot of civilisation, wisdom, literature and technology, but never the western type that eventually became the universal mark everywhere, whether 17 degrees above zero,17 below or 30 above.

    • Vassos Zem says

      @cfkane1941

      I agree. Also note that Diamond fully acknowledges that the agricultural revolution started in the Fertile Crescent. Why, then, does the author of this piece not declare the peoples of the Middle East to have had an ‘unfair’ advantage?

    • dirk says

      @cfk: about fairness: the idea is strongly correlated with human rights on equality and pursuit of happiness. Where you leave this out (as it was until let’s say 1750 in Europe, elsewhere much later than that), the whole idea of fairness also is delusional and determinism remains.

      Yuval Harari in Homo Sapiens on this in chapter “There is no justice in history”: The imagined orders (society rules and morals) were neither neutral nor fair.

      • cfkane1941 says

        @dirk:
        Regarding the correlation of fairness with human rights, that’s as may be, but human rights, equality, and the pursuit of happiness are political ideas, and my comment was merely about the injection of the word “unfair” in a sentence devoted to the non-political ideas of geography and resources.

        Did I misunderstand your response?

        • dirk says

          Do you really see so much difference, cfk? As a biologist (thus, also little bit antropologist) I don’t. Is it fair that the seed fallen between the thorn shrub does not grow (can’t) as the grain fallen in good clean soil? This never was seen as unfair, but it seems, nowadays, it does (as a metaphor), the media and newspapers are full of it, day after day.

          • dirk says

            But, maybe I have been too much influenced by the early geo-anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel, as were Harris and Diamond, I think.

            Culture, technology and politics just as some sort of environmental determinism, and eurocentrism as the core message.

            Though, at times I doubt again these days. Is it that simple??
            But, we people, like compulsive narratives too much, of course!
            Factoids more than facts (because these latter only exist in the natural sciences).

          • cfkane1941 says

            I think we agree, but with different words.

  18. Looks like I just read a scientific attempt at justification for cleansing society of those determined to have a genetic predisposition for unacceptable behavior. That’s probably not going to play well with those believing in free will, otherwise known as Conservatives.

  19. Slim Jim says

    The fact that Puritans and other Calvinists were so zealous about morality – despite their belief in predestination – would seem to undermine the claim that belief in determinism will lead to a decay of moral values.

  20. neoteny says

    Here is the output of the Rule 30 cellular automaton, starting from a single (black) cell:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Rule30-256-rows.png

    This output is of an entirely deterministic process: the state of all cells follows from the deterministic application of deterministic rules on the deterministic input (a single black cell). The left side of the output is quite deterministic; the right side is less so, but patterns are still perceivable.

    But the state of the ‘middle’ cell, the ones which are exactly below of the initial single cell, is entirely random: no rhyme or reason to it, i.e. that it is black or white. For any particular cell in the middle column its state can be decided by only making all the necessary replacements which are needed to figure the state of that particular cell in the middle column: there’s no closed expression which could give the state of a middle cell only by the row number; i.e. “is the 71th cell in the middle column black or white?” question can’t be answered by sticking 71 into some formula then calculating it: only by making all the necessary substitutions (I think 71^2 = 5041 substitutions in all).

    The moral of the story: entirely deterministic processes acting on entirely deterministic inputs are able to produce output which is entirely random for humans.

  21. neoteny says

    I wrote:

    (I think 71^2 = 5041 substitutions in all)

    This is entirely wrong; the right value would be more like 35^2 = 1225 substitutions, but this isn’t an exact figure, just to show approx. magnitudes of the # of required substitutions.

  22. E. Olson says

    Interesting essay, but biological determinism merely sets boundaries on the possible, and within those boundaries are where individual choice and luck determine the outcome. Relatively few argue against the idea that some people are born with innate athletic abilities that allow them to run faster, jump higher, or lift heavier loads than those born without these gifts, yet even in athletics there are those born with gifts who make bad decisions about training and diet that lead them to fail more often versus those who make better decisions with equal or even somewhat lesser natural born athletic ability. Thus only a few have the ability to win the Olympic 100 meter dash or do a reverse double-flip slam dunk in the NBA, and even fewer will have the luck to be given the opportunity to train under good coaches and facilities and the willingness to get up at 6 AM to do training runs or practice 3 point shots that will enable them to achieve athletic greatness and fame. At the same time, good coaching and facilities will never turn a Willie Shoemaker into a Michael Jordan.

    All evidence suggest that similar patterns are present with regards to cognitive abilities, as someone born with high IQ will have a much higher probability of attaining success in life on a variety of measures than someone born with low IQ, in large part because the high IQ are more likely to make better choices with regards to taking advantage of opportunities and avoiding problems they are presented with in life. This doesn’t mean that everyone receives the same opportunities or faces the same difficulties, or that smart people can’t make bad decisions (or that less smart can’t make good decisions), but the odds of a good outcome favor the smart in almost any environment. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that the high IQ are much more likely than the low IQ to learn from their bad decisions (or the bad decisions of others) and avoid repeating them, which further magnifies outcome differences over time.

    It is this cognitive side of biological determinism that the Left often refuses to acknowledge or protests against. They seem to believe that if only the Lloyd Christmas’s of the world were put into a Headstart program and given a 500 point “adversity” bonus on their SAT to get into Harvard that they would all magically transform themselves into an Einstein, Mozart or Gates. Unfortunately there is zero evidence to support this Leftist viewpoint, and all it does is take opportunities and resources away from the people who actually have the natural born ability to make great contributions to humanity.

    • Alexander Allan says

      “…there is strong evidence that the high IQ are much more likely than the low IQ to learn from their bad decisions (or the bad decisions of others) and avoid repeating them,…”

      I disagree completely with this claim. If this was true, socialist/Marxist ideas would have been abandoned decades ago but they keep getting rebranded and glorified by people with a high IQ.

      The reason people don’t learn from their mistakes is because we are not solely material beings but are a composite of the material and immaterial. Modern secularists subordinate their intellect to their appetite (the material), rather than working on mastering the appetite through the will for the betterment of the intellect. In other words they equate emotions and feelings (appetite) with truth as your appetite is determined by your material nature and its interaction with the environment and therefore it is rational to follow the appetite. Modernity uses the intellect to justify the appetite, rather than using the intellect to seek what is good and true and then, through the will, orientate the appetite to the truth revealed through reason by the application of the intellect. This is understandable from the perspective of the false materialistic worldview, were there cannot logically be objective truths, and all truths are solely subjective desires of the appetite, that attain social cohesion through the pursuit and utilisation of power.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Alexander Allan

        Good comment. I think the observation that the highly intelligent are just as prone to confirmation bias as the average man in the street is salient here, the only distinction being the ability to find more evidence to support their position.

        One of my favourite stories involves a trip by the British Mensa society to the Science (or maybe Natural History) Museum in London. They were dropped off by their coach, only to spend several hours in search of the building. It was only when they eventually returned to their original start position and waited for their pickup, that the coach driver informed them that they had been walking around the Museum for the past several hours.

        Just goes to show, there’s nothing common about sense.

        • neoteny says

          there’s nothing common about sense

          Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have.

          — René Descartes

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Alexander Allan

        “If this was true, socialist/Marxist ideas would have been abandoned decades ago but they keep getting rebranded and glorified by people with a high IQ.”

        Yabut you make a subtle mistake there: High IQ professors themselves succeed very well by selling a rebranded Maxism. Their policy works very well for them, indeed it works over and over again. QED.

      • E. Olson says

        Alexander Allan – you raise a very interesting point, but perhaps not the one you intended. Yes, smart people seem to fail to learn from the repeated failure of Marxism, but this learning failure comes mostly from smart people who have not actually lived under Marxism. Smart people who have lived under Marxism almost never want to live under it again and/or do their best to escape it. On the other hand, “smart” western professors and politicians who promote Marxist theory tend to do so because there is clearly something wrong with Capitalism/Democracy when their high IQs only lead them to modest academic or public sector salaries while entrepreneurs and business leaders with lower IQ earn millions/billions making stupid products for stupid consumers.

        Furthermore, as Charles Murray points out, the cognitive elite often promote revolutionary ideas such as sexual promiscuity, single parenthood, and high taxes that they are smart enough to understand they should not follow in their own lives (or do their best to personally avoid).

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      Which is why economic justice is so important. If the ‘contributions to humanity’ are actually contributed to humanity instead of being hidden in a tax haven, then even the poor and unsuccessful will understand that they are better off if resources are put where then can actually achieve something since they will benefit from those real achievements. If the captain of a ship lives in luxury while his crew aren’t even likely to survive the voyage, then mutiny is likely and whoever leads the mutiny and installs himself as captain might kill all of them by virtue of not knowing a sextant from a sex toy, but at least he will enjoy a few good days drinking himself thru the captain’s liquor supply. Conversely if every member of the crew has a vested interest in a successful voyage, and every one of them is well and fairly treated, then one and all accent to the captain’s rule and his privileges because those are for the collective good. (In the above, Trump might represent the status quo and AOC is offering herself as the leader of the mutiny — there would be quite a party for a few days, no doubt.)

      No point saying ‘Ah, but the contribution is the tech that the rich boy invented’ that’s true but not sufficient. The rich boy benefited from the costs incurred in building the society that made his ventures possible. Those costs should be recovered. We see little innovation and paradoxically few billionaires in Guatemala even tho a tiny elite own almost everything. Society itself needs support and those who have benefited the most should contribute the most. Even Amazon should pay taxes. Even Jeff Bezos. Pocahontas says that a 2% surtax on billionaires would shake loose enough money to pave the streets will gold. I’m always a bit cautious about what Pocahontas says, still it arouses my curiosity.

      • neoteny says

        The rich boy benefited from the costs incurred in building the society that made his ventures possible.

        1) what were those costs?
        2) who bore those costs?
        3) why did those people bore the costs of ‘building the society’?

        • Ray Andrews says

          @neoteny

          1) Those costs are far too numerous to list, then encompass the whole of civilization.
          2) In a just society, everyone carries them.
          3) Because it was in their mutual interest to do so.

          • neoteny says

            icosts are far too numerous to list

            Then list three of them.

            In a just society, everyone carries them.

            My question was about who bore (past tense) those costs.

            it was in their mutual interest to do so

            So for the cost they had gains; there’s the “cost recovery”.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @neoteny

            Infrastructure (roads, sewers, etc), public safety (cops, judges, prisons), education.

            Same folks as bear it today: the workers (since only workers create value, only workers really pay taxes.)

            “So for the cost they had gains; there’s the “cost recovery”.”

            Except that society as a whole now has both an infrastructure liability and a social debt. We see the social debt mostly in the inner cities.

          • Andras Kovacs says

            Infrastructure (roads, sewers, etc), public safety (cops, judges, prisons), education.

            Those costs weren’t incurred by society; they were incurred by the net taxpayers.

            <

            blockquote>only workers create value

            <

            blockquote>

            Impossible: investors create value as well. When you take out a mortgage, the investor creates value for you: you get to live in a house you haven’t yet fully paid for. You’re consuming the house now, but pay for it in the future. And it is value for you: you value living in the house now more than the interest you pay on the mortgage (instead of saving up the house’s price & buying it then).

            Except that society as a whole now has both an infrastructure liability and a social debt.

            There’s no such thing as society as a whole having — i.e. possessing — anything, ‘debts’ included.

      • E. Olson says

        Ray – where is the economic justice greatest? In N. Korea where virtually everyone is equally poor and hungry or the USA where the poorest 20% of the population almost all have the means to own big screen TVs, cars, air conditioning, smart phones, and be obese? And all of this material wealth available to even the poorest citizens was invented and manufactured, and marketed by people who often became rich providing it to people eager to exchange their money or time for cool technology, life saving products, and useful services, and who also often go to the same public schools, use the same public libraries, and drive on the same public roads that are also available to the less successful. Furthermore, the bottom half of the population (in the US) pay no income taxes or any other “success” taxes on such things as capital gains and investment income, so exactly how much more redistribution should be taken from those who have great ideas and work hard and given to those who don’t have ideas and don’t work very hard?

        • Ray Andrews says

          @E. Olson

          No point in mentioning North Korea, neither of us want to live there.

          “where the poorest 20% of the population almost all have the means to own big screen TVs”

          Yeah, it is not obvious these people need more money. My feelings on the perpetual welfare class are probably as harsh as yours, UBI notwithstanding. My sympathies are with the working poor who might indeed have an iphone, but they sleep in their cars.

          “so exactly how much more redistribution should be taken from those who have great ideas and work hard and given to those who don’t have ideas and don’t work very hard?”

          The funny thing is that except here (Quillette) most folks think I’m the reincarnation of JP Morgan, or John Galt in the flesh. I hate the word ‘redistribution’ it reeks of AOC. I think that the social contract — which I hold to be absolutely necessary — must involve a safety net but not a very comfortable one.

          But I do think that a robust society rewards the producing class over the rentier class. Dunno, I grew up in the 60s so maybe I’m biased, but that seemed like getting it right. Rentier capitalism is stagnant as well as being unfair. Keeping them lean and mean is like keeping your pet wolf lean and mean — it’s how he was meant to be and if a fat, lazy wolf had any sense of self-reflection he’d hate himself. So if Pocahontas would tax them 2% I might tax them 10%, but it would all be spent by the stingiest Scotsman on the planet. “Ye want wha? Ye’re entitled to wha, ye say?”

          • Andras Kovacs says

            One can zoom in or zoom out the category as seems expedient

            And on the issue of taxpaying & -consuming it is a fatal mistake to zoom out to the level of society: the exact issue is that there is a fundamental difference between net taxpayers & net tax consumers: the former finances the latter to the extent of the difference. It is a transfer of wealth from the former to the latter: a transfer which isn’t consented to by the net taxpayers — unlike exchanges on the free market where both parties consent to the exchange because the exchange leaves both parties better off: voluntary exchange creates value.

            Same with capitalists. They sometimes do something useful

            And the way the usefulness of their — capitalist entreprenurs‘ — doings is measured by the profits they make. The more profits they make on the free market, the more useful are the goods produced by them according to the consumers of those goods.

            Because I don’t like sleeping rough.

            So the house is valuable to you because you prefer to sleep in the house and you prefer to do this now. So you take out a mortgage & buy the house now & move into it now, i.e. you’re consuming the house from now on. You don’t save up to buy the house outright in the future, in which case you wouldn’t have to pay a penny of interest: nope, no sireee, you want to sleep cozily in the house now. And this is why you pay interest: that you don’t have to sleep rough until you save up the price of the house, but can consume (enjoy) the house from now on.

            The investor pays for the house now, but the investor doesn’t live in (consume, enjoy) the house: you do that. The investor gets back her capital in monthly payments + she gets paid for not living in the house but letting you do so.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Andras Kovacs

          “Those costs weren’t incurred by society; they were incurred by the net taxpayers.”

          That’s like saying that humans didn’t walk on the moon, astronauts did. The taxpayer is part of society and he pays taxes on behalf of society as a whole.

          “you get to live in a house you haven’t yet fully paid for.”

          Right, but no value is created. Somewhere in the economy there are IOUs on my labor — I owe labor to those who built my house because I didn’t build it myself.

          There’s no such thing as society as a whole having — i.e. possessing — anything, ‘debts’ included.

          What do you call it when, for example, my house has been left in disrepair for some time? I suppose ‘debt’ is not exactly the right word. ‘Depreciation’ is closer. When assets are in danger of being lost due to insufficient investment in them, value is or could be lost, no? I’ll call it debt for lack of a better word, but what is the better word? Unfunded obligation is sorta the same idea.

          • Andras Kovacs says

            That’s like saying that humans didn’t walk on the moon, astronauts did.

            Nah, that’s like you saying “we walked on the Moon!” and me pointing out that neither you nor I have walked on the Moon (so far) but Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin and some other particular people did. Which might be harshing your mellow, but it is factually true, while your statement is true only in a figurative sense (as in: we humans as a species reached the Moon).

            Only individuals pay taxes; society doesn’t pay taxes. And some people are net taxpayers, i.e. they pay more in taxes that what they receive from the govt. (all levels), while others are net tax consumers, i.e. their revenue from the govt. exceeds the taxes they pay. For example, all bureaucrats are net tax consumers: their wages comes from the govt. (i.e. taxes) & it always exceeds the sum of taxes they pay.

            So the set of taxpayers can be split into two subsets: net taxpayers & net tax consumers. And the former finances the latter to the extent of the difference. The previously mentioned bureaucrats (including sitting politicians) can only be net tax consumers: they are by definition are parasitic on the set of net taxpayers (which of course aren’t all the non-bureaucratic people).

            Right, but no value is created.

            Why did you purchase the home & moved into it, then?

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Andras Kovacs

            “your statement is true only in a figurative sense (as in: we humans as a species reached the Moon)”

            Sure. But we’re both right. One can zoom in or zoom out the category as seems expedient: Humans > astronauts > Neil & Buzz.

            “Only individuals pay taxes; society doesn’t pay taxes.”

            That’s like saying only soldiers fight wars, armies don’t fight them. We naturally make these groupings while knowing their limitations. So I can say that armies fight wars and that societies pay taxes while agreeing entirely that really the taxes are paid by individuals.

            “net taxpayers & net tax consumers”

            Agree. With any luck the bureaucrats do something useful enough to justify their consumption. Same with capitalists. They sometimes do something useful even if they don’t actually physically make things. OTHO like bureaucrats they have a tendency to become useless parasites.

            “Why did you purchase the home & moved into it, then?”

            Because I don’t like sleeping rough. But the house was not moved into before it was built. We do not borrow stuff from the vacuum, we borrow it from each other and we can’t borrow things that don’t exist. Money makes it seem like there is such a thing as debt against the vacuum, but it is really an IOU for labor. I’ll help you bring in your harvest today, but you have to help me bring mine in tomorrow. That’s all there is.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @lydia00

          Anyone so poor that they can’t afford to quit a job for fear of going hungry that same day is indeed forced to keep their job. What I like about UBI is that if you don’t like a job you quit because you won’t go hungry if you do. So your ‘protection’ is simply the fact that employers have to treat employees right or they won’t have any. Conversely there would be no need for protections from being fired because being fired wouldn’t entail poverty. I dream of what a deregulated economy might do.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Ray

        Wealth taxes didn’t really work out very well for the French, who took a huge hit to their tax base though instituting them, as their wealthiest families fled abroad to escape this sort of government overreach. Interestingly, I don’t think any of the Scandinavian countries have an inheritance tax (although it may only be most of them)- they instead rely on high consumption taxes, and a very high income tax rate, on anyone earning over 1.5 or 1.6 of the mean or modal salary.

        This is because they probably realise that capital invested productively by those who have learned how to keep it, is a far better way of generating jobs and revenue (through profits), than the government spending it on ill-considered jobs programs. The fact that such family estates are usually invested in the country of residence, where national loyalties prevail, can only be to the greater good of the society in which these families live.

        I do like Tim Berners-Lee idea of us all getting a dividend on our own data- I for one would rather invest my dividend in commissioning better programming through Netflix, in preference to a discount. I also really like Andrew Yang’s ideas, especially in that UBI removes the structural disincentive to work, which welfare represents.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Geary Johansen

          “UBI removes the structural disincentive to work, which welfare represents.”

          Yes. It looks like welfare from a distance but the difference is subtle but profound. If it looks like a duck and swims like a duck it may yet be a loon.

          BTW, I enjoy all your comments Geary, you’re a sensible guy.

  23. C Young says

    Poor framing of the problem. The “angry anthropologist” also believes in determinism. High levels of crime in poor areas aren’t anyone’s fault, they are determined by economic factors. He’d be just as angry if you denied the determinism.

    The progressive don’t believe in free will. Personal responsibility is a conservative concept in its view. Dertiminism isn’t the issue in question.

    PS are we now pretending that Harris and Weinstein are major intellectual world-figures, rather than Youtube celebrities ?

    • “PS are we now pretending that Harris and Weinstein are major intellectual world-figures, rather than Youtube celebrities ?”

      Because the left attacked them? Eric Weinstein concerns me the most. Every time I hear him, I hear an arrogant philosopher King who knows what’s best for me, the peasant.

  24. Steven B Kurtz says

    If anyone can evidence anything not physical (energy/matter/information), a Nobel Prize with around a million dollars awaits. Show us a calorie free idea, emotion, action, sensation…Show us a soul, deity, ghost…

    Memories are (Occam’s Razor) physical until an alternative is evidenced. Multigenerational heredity (genes, epigenetics, biome, viruses, prions, and?) plus experiences since conception form our history. We cannot escape that. It is who we are.

    Thus, this issue is all semantics. We make choices/decisions all the time. But they result from our cumulative past. There’s a million bucks waiting for evidence to the contrary!

    • Locketopus says

      Information is “physical”? Since when?

      What color is the number 2? How much does it weigh? What does it smell like? Can you point at 2 for me? (note: I’m speaking of the actual number 2, not the numeral 2, which is merely a symbol for the idea, nor the words I’m using to describe it).

      • neoteny says

        Information is “physical”? Since when?

        Since forever: information is the pattern in which matter is arranged. No matter, no pattern, no information.

        Can you point at 2 for me?

        Sure I can: I put you into an fMRI machine, I show you cards with different numbers of things on them (one egg, two apples, three dogs, two trees, four clouds, two tits) and find the area(s) of your brain which get activated when the cards with two things on them shown but not when cards with one, three or any other number of things is shown.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @neoteny

          Sorry but a reaction to ‘2’ is not the same thing as ‘2’. And please elucidate the pattern. I can show you the pattern we call the Fibonacci Sequence. It will be everywhere exactly the same. We can identify it with 100% certainty. If we take a hundred people and put them into an fMRI machine and run your experiment will we be able to point to ‘2’ in each one of them? If so, as every good scientists knows, you will be able to predict ahead of time exactly what is going to happen in each brain when ‘2’ is encountered and even better you’ll be able to look at a random fMRI and answer whether or not that brain is in a state of matter called ‘2’. Some animals can count, and so the pattern of matter that indicates ‘2’ will be present in them as well exactly the same. (We dolphins know the Fibonacci Sequence and ‘our’ FS is exactly the same as yours.)

          • neoteny says

            Sorry but a reaction to ‘2’ is not the same thing as ‘2’.

            There’s no such thing as ‘2’: only the reaction of a living entity to those sets which have two elements.

            If we take a hundred people and put them into an fMRI machine and run your experiment will we be able to point to ‘2’ in each one of them?

            Yes.

            you will be able to predict ahead of time exactly what is going to happen in each brain

            If brains were exactly the same then I could.

            even better you’ll be able to look at a random fMRI and answer whether or not that brain is in a state of matter called ‘2’

            If I have enough images of the particular brain contemplating sets of different cardinalities, including sets of cardinalities of two.

            Some animals can count, and so the pattern of matter that indicates ‘2’ will be present in them as well

            Indeed.

            exactly the same

            Not at all: no two brains are exactly the same (not even of monozygotic twins), so the representation of ‘2’ aren’t exactly the same in dissimilar brains.

          • Locketopus says

            A big problem with neoteny’s claim that the “arrangement of matter in the brain” is, in and of itself, “2”, is that that the “2” in a printed math book, the “2” encoded in a human brain, a “2” encoded in the computer I’m using right now… have absolutely nothing in common on the physical level. The “arrangement of matter” is completely different in each case, yet the underlying concept of 2-ness is the same.

          • Locketopus says

            There’s no such thing as ‘2’: only the reaction of a living entity to those sets which have two elements.

            And, yet, the Universe was running in accordance with the laws of physics and math long before any “living entity” was around. How can you explain that if number is only a “reaction of a living entity to sets”?

            Now, I agree that there are certain things that ARE defined by a specific arrangement of matter. A Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet is a particular arrangement of matter (at the macro scale, obviously there will be differences between different cars at small and micro scales). Here is the thing: if you drastically alter that arrangement of matter, what you have is no longer an Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet. The areas of the brain that light up when you think about one are DEFINITELY not an E-Class. Neither is a picture of one.

            This is not true of the “2” in the brain, the “2” in a printed book, the “2” in a computer. They basically have NOTHING whatsoever in common on the physical level. Yet, each one behaves the same way when you apply the rules of arithmetic. Can you explain how this is possible if the “2” is ONLY the arrangement of matter, as you claim?

          • neoteny says

            <

            blockquote>have absolutely nothing in common on the physical level

            <

            blockquote>

            Sure they do: all of them are physical representations.

          • neoteny says

            the Universe was running in accordance with the laws of physics and math long before any “living entity” was around

            Indeed: which shows that the Universe is governed by objective laws of physics, chemistry and the like. Math has no laws: math is a language which has rules.

            Information can be encoded in patterns of matter, but is not itself matter.

            Correctly: information can be encoded only in patterns of matter: without matter, there’s no information.

            a picture of two trees is a picture of trees, not a picture of two itself

            A picture of two trees are a picture of two trees; nobody ever said that it is a picture of two itself.

            The map is not the territory

            So true: and there’s no such territory as ‘2’.

            That’s not “two” itself.

            Indeed: “‘two’ itself” doesn’t exist.

        • Locketopus says

          Since forever: information is the pattern in which matter is arranged.

          Nonsense. Information can be encoded in patterns of matter, but is not itself matter.

          I show you cards with different numbers of things on them (one egg, two apples, three dogs, two trees, four clouds, two tits)

          No, a picture of two trees is a picture of trees, not a picture of two itself.

          find the area(s) of your brain which get activated when the cards with two things on them

          The map is not the territory, dude. That’s not “two” itself.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Locketopus

            ” …
            Can you explain how this is possible if the “2” is ONLY the arrangement of matter, as you claim?”

            Superbly argued. Delightful. You’ve got him, but will he yield?

          • Ray Andrews says

            @neoteny

            “Indeed: “‘two’ itself” doesn’t exist.”

            “Indeed: which shows that the Universe is governed by objective laws of physics, chemistry and the like. Math has no laws: math is a language which has rules.”

            Rules but not laws? Well, in English it’s a rule that adjectives precede nouns, and in French exactly the opposite, But which mathematical ‘rule’ is reversible? It seems to me that rules are explainable regularities, but they are also arbitrary and that nothing in Math is arbitrary, therefore math has laws. 2+2=4.

            And in any case, if physics is explainable via mathematical … laws … yes, we speak of the laws of physics, but these laws are entirely of a mathematical nature, so that forces the math to contain laws, does it not? d=1/2at^2 is a law of physics, and I dare say the math is not arbitrary either.

            Further, if physics is real, then math must be exactly as real, and if math is real, and ‘2’ is as real as anything else in math, then how can ‘2’ not exist? Without ‘2’ we can’t do math, thus we can’t do physics. As Plato realized a long time ago, ‘2’ is a perfect form — a very real idea that transcends any particular use or expression of it. By the time she is three, a child knows this too.

          • Locketopus says

            neoteny:

            Sure they do: all of them are physical representations.

            Now you’re just weaseling. There are an infinitude of things that have physical representations that do not have the property of two-ness.

            The internal mental concept, the two on paper, and the two in the computer have something in common.

            What PHYSICAL attribute do they SHARE that is not shared with the concept of, say, water, or even the concept of three?

            Hint: there isn’t one.

            Ray Andrews:

            Superbly argued. Delightful. You’ve got him, but will he yield?

            Thanks. Apparently not. 🙂

          • Andras Kovacs says

            There are an infinitude of things that have physical representations that do not have the property of two-ness.

            This true statement has nothing to do with my point: that all representations of ‘2’ or two-ness are patterns in matter. Please critique this statement of mine.

            The internal mental concept, the two on paper, and the two in the computer have something in common.

            Indeed: the ‘2’ or two-ness.

            What PHYSICAL attribute do they SHARE

            What these different representations of ‘2’ or two-ness share is the physicality (materiality) of the representation. The internal mental concept of two-ness is precisely the neuronal activation patterns which arise when the two-ness of something (kittens or thermonuclear bombs) is contemplated by the person. And these neuronal activation patterns can be visualized by fMRI. When the subject contemplates some situation involving two-ness, then different neuronal activation patterns show than when three-ness or wateriness is contemplated.

            You asked: “Can you point at 2 for me?” I’m claiming that I can: by pointing to the neuronal activation pattern generated by someone’s brain when contemplating the two-ness of various scenes. It is a particular representation of two-ness: for the particular person being observed by the fMRI machine. It is her representation of two-ness. If you want, you can be observed in a similar manner and then you can see the two-ness of various scenes being represented in your brain.

          • Andras Kovacs says

            which mathematical ‘rule’ is reversible?

            Almost all of them?

            2+2=4, but 4-2=2

            3*5=15, but 15/3=5 & 15/5=3

            But in the latter case, if you multiply two very large primes (which are close to each other in magnitude but not too close) then it can be exceedingly hard to reverse the operation, i.e. to factor the product. This run-time asymmetry is the basis of public key cryptography (among others).

            yes, we speak of the laws of physics, but these laws are entirely of a mathematical nature, so that forces the math to contain laws, does it not?

            No; math as a language is used to describe the regularity — the law — of the linked physical values. In your example: how is the distance covered relates to the acceleration and time elapsed. The law is physical: the formula which describes the law, the regularity, is mathematical. You & I both know that the ‘d’ means distance, the ‘a’ means acceleration and the ‘t’ means time. We both know that the formula is about the physical law.

            That said, I admit that I might have overplayed my hand by claiming that math has no laws. There is for example number theory, which is about the various properties of whole numbers and the functions which can be applied to them. Some (most?) of these various properties are distributed among the whole numbers with regularity; and when such regularity is expressed in mathematical language (for example with formulas, closed expressions), then such a law (because in case of physics I equated regularity with law[ful ‘behaviour’]) is definitely mathematical, not physical (or chemical or biological).

            For example, let’s take the set of compound numbers (non-prime whole numbers). If they aren’t square #s (not 4, 9, 16, 25 …), then it is a ‘law’ that half of the divisors of a particular compound # will be below its square root and the other half will be above it: so there will be an even # of divisors for all such compound #s. In case of square #s the previous law holds with the addition that there will be one more divisor: the square root itself, which has no ‘pair’ (it is multiplied with itself), so all square #s have an odd # of divisors. So there’s two mathematical laws (or one law with a corollary).

        • Ray Andrews says

          @neoteny

          No pun intended. But if we view ‘2’ as merely a state of matter. Then all of math must be likewise only a state of matter. Thus math could not have existed even at the moment of the big bang, and it would be difficult to say where the laws that govern physics came from if the math that governs them did not exist. Nonsense, surely? Math can be ‘done’ in/on an arbitrarily infinite number of media (Locketopus above), but surely the math remains the same? Surely ‘2’ is a real idea, and a universal one at that, and it’s physical symbolic representations, and the various ways that brains might respond to it are entirely ephemeral and arbitrary?

          • NT Wilcox says

            After reading this particular thread I thought some of you who commented in it might enjoy and profit from reading the first chapter (“The Philosophy and the Approach”) of David Marr’s 1982 book Vision. You can find it here:

            mechanism.ucsd.edu/teaching/f18/David_Marr_Vision_A_Computational_Investigation_into_the_Human_Representation_and_Processing_of_Visual_Information.chapter1.pdf

            You could begin at Section 1.2 on page 19, but I think what comes before (kind of a brief prehistory of vision research, beginning on page 8) is hugely motivating. Marr certainly inspired a generation of neuroscientists, but keep in mind that contemporary neuroscientists are pretty sharply divided on whether Marr’s ideas have staying power. In grad school I was much influenced by Marr’s ideas and still am, but I study decision-making and was mostly trained in econ and psych.

            I hope some of you find it interesting.

          • Andras Kovacs says

            Then all of math must be likewise only a state of matter.

            Yes.

            Thus math could not have existed even at the moment of the big bang

            How so? Matter existed from the Big Bang; if math is the state of matter, then math existed from the Big Bang.

            Of course here we run into various problems: the laws of physics weren’t the same immediately after the Big Bang. Yet those laws which existed at that time still can be described with mathematical language. In this sense math is more fundamental than the laws of physics: the latter can change, but the former is ‘permanent’. A prime # will have only 1 and itself as a divisor; no prime # will ever turn into a compound # & vice versa.

            However it is, all mathematical concepts (including the # 2) have to have some physical representation. The Pythagorean theorem’s formula can be carved into stone or it can be in your head, but wherever it is, it is represented as a particular arrangement of matter. Which makes sense: the Pythagorean theorem is information: it’s a mathematical ‘law’ which is true in all cases of triangles with a right angle (in Euclidean geometry).

          • Andras Kovacs says

            David Marr’s 1982 book Vision

            Thank you kindly for the recommendation. Right back at you: I’m sure you would find Valentino Bratitenberg’s Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology as a huge brain candy. I can’t recommend it warmly enough.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Andras Kovacs

            This might be the ultimate splitting of hairs, but do they not say that for a leisurely femtosecond there was no matter? That sorta has to be the case because when the universe is smaller than a proton you can’t have 10^80 protons in it, can you? Surely even the Quantum eggheads don’t want to tinker with that, praise God.

            Can the laws of physics ever change? Surely it is doctrine that they can’t. They might manifest differently of course, but change? I think one can burn for suggesting it.

            Agree about the math, but I still think you’re a damned heretic 😉 about the laws of physics.

            It seems that in our physical universe they actually do always have such, but is in strictly necessary? I say no. As you say, math is more fundamental than even the universe. Ergo math requires no physical representation. I’m merely quoting Plato in all this of course, no claims to original thinking here. And isn’t Plato right in practice? Surely we all feel in our heads the Platonic forms? Do we not all know that all actual triangles are mere vulgar sketches of the ‘real’ triangle, which is a perfect abstraction? I think that the universe could disolve but Platonic triangles would remain.

          • Andras Kovacs says

            for a leisurely femtosecond there was no matter?

            Well, if there were no matter, then what kind of physical laws could have existed? Is there any physical law which isn’t about relations between matter? And if there were no physical laws in existence there then it is meaningless to talk about the existence of math which could have described a then existing physical law — because no physical law existed then.

            Can the laws of physics ever change? Surely it is doctrine that they can’t. They might manifest differently of course, but change? I think one can burn for suggesting it.

            My understanding is that the orthodox doctrine says that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the Universe. The unstated assumption is that it is true for a given point in time. Which are slices on timecones — or something like that.

            For some considerable time after the Big Bang there were no elements with radioactive isotopes: dying stars were needed for their nucleosynthesis. But with no radioactive isotopes, the physical concept of half-life can’t exist: there isn’t anything yet of which the concept would be about. So what happened? Did the physical concept of half-time sprung into existence when the 1st radioactive atoms got synthesized in novas or supernovas or colliding neutron stars, wherever it happened?

            I’m merely quoting Plato

            Plato was a very smart cookie for his time who made theories about the existence & origin of concepts. What he wasn’t aware of is the fact that concepts exist in brains. No brains, no concepts, including no Platonic abstract concepts. And no concept of ‘2’ or two-ness. None, nada, zilch.

            Objective reality of course unfolds independently of existence of Platonic concepts. But living critters with nerves/neurons did come about eventually, at least on this rock: and above a certain size & complexity they had the neural equipment to form concepts, Platonic or otherwise, including the concept of two-ness, then (likely) the superconcept of number-ness.

            It’s all in our heads. We cram them full of (conscious or unconscious) theoretical models about the world: and we use those models to predict the future. And here comes into play George Box’s insight: all models are wrong, but some models are useful. Well, there’s an evolutionary selection process is going on between models, too. Which gets awfully interesting if there’s an arms race between different models.

            Your kind words are greatly appreciated, sir, especially when you labelled me a heretic. Guilty as charged: my middle name is ‘heterodox’. 🙂

            subtraction is not addition

            You were asking for mathematical ‘rule’ reversibility: and subtraction is the reverse (inverse) operation of addition.

            how perfectly math is suited to describing physics

            Again: math is a language for describing regularities (patterns) of relationships in a compact format (when we’re able to find such compact — closed — expressions). Physics has laws, so living beings with nervous systems (brains) developed concepts and discovered those laws stating relations between concepts and developed math to describe these relations. Objective reality with its laws does exist out there: but the models mirroring (always to a limited extent) said objective reality exist only in our heads, including the math used to express these laws in a symbolic manner.

            I hereby command you to sally forth without let or hindrance and acquire a copy of the book recommended by me: https://www.amazon.ca/Vehicles-Experiments-Psychology-Valentino-Braitenberg/dp/0262521121/ref=sr_1_1 Your life will not be the same again.

          • Asenath Waite says

            @neoteny, Ray Andrews et al.

            This is a silly argument but neoteny is right. Concepts (such as “2” or mathematics in general) only exist as arrangements of matter within the brains of organisms. The concepts are a language to explain the universe but are not present in the universe except within brain matter. These arrangements of brain matter allow the organisms possessing them to navigate the universe in a logical way. Mathematics would not exist without brain matter, but the material phenomena it describes still would.

          • Andras Kovacs says

            @Asenath Waite

            Thank you; you fully understood my argument.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Andras Kovacs

          “What these different representations of ‘2’ or two-ness share is the physicality (materiality) of the representation.”

          But by making the sentence above you have actually conceded. Indeed, there can be many representations of ‘2’, but having admitted that there is something which is being represented, you concede that it exists. All the infinite number of ways we might represent ‘2’ does beg the question what is being represented, and what is being represented is ‘2’ — the Platonic abstraction of a number. There is very obviously an a priori reason that we say ‘Eureka!’ when we notice that ‘2’ in a book and ‘2’ in my head and ‘2’ in a calculator and ‘2’ on an abacus have something in common that unites them. As I mentioned elsewhere, you know this perfectly well, and have done since you were a kid, but for some reason you prefer to make a game of it. No insult, this propensity exists among very many intelligent people.

          “The internal mental concept of two-ness is precisely the neuronal activation patterns which arise when the two-ness of something”

          You beg the question. You say that every material representation of ‘2’ is a material representation of ‘2’, which is hardly an illumination. But what is being represented? ‘2’ is being represented. Did gravity exist before there were any physical objects to feel it’s tug? Most would say so. It seems weird to suppose that the law of gravity sorta popped into existence only when it was ‘needed’ due to matter having formed. In the same way ‘2’ exists even if we have nothing to count.

          However, the medieval theologian in me wonders how God learned his math when, floating by himself outside time and space, he had no THINGS to count. I say that math exists outside things upon which we might demonstrate them, at the same time, I concede that actually DOING math is rather easier when we have objects to count with. But Pythagoras is true even if I have no paper on which to draw the proof. It would remain true even if it had never once been drawn. It would remain true even if no one had yet discovered it.

          “Almost all of them?
          2+2=4, but 4-2=2”

          Pardon sir, subtraction is not addition. You have not bent a law there, you have introduced another law.

          “That said, I admit that I might have overplayed my hand by claiming that math has no laws.”

          No point is discussing anything with a person who can’t correct a small error. You are a reasonable man sir.

          “No; math as a language is used to describe the regularity”

          Agree. But philosophers have been astonished from the dawn of science at how perfectly math is suited to describing physics. As you know this is ‘the unreasonable effectiveness of math’ observation. As a kid, the first time I had to remove a nut from my bicycle, then discovering the wrench, I couldn’t help but conclude that the wrench was in fact designed for exactly the situation I found myself in. Math and science seem to have the same sort of relationship. Or is is a coincidence?

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Andras Kovacs

            “Well, if there were no matter, then what kind of physical laws could have existed?”

            It’s the same problem: do the laws of physics exist before they can be active? Does ‘2’ exist before there is anything to count or anyone to do the counting? I say yes. This is ‘Idealism’ IIRC and I can’t remember what your school is called, but it has been the more popular in modern times — certainly not easy to dismiss.

            “But with no radioactive isotopes, the physical concept of half-life can’t exist”

            That’s a superb test case.

            “Did the physical concept of half-time sprung into existence”

            But surely it didn’t. Surely the Weak Force was already part of the universe even if it had no nuclei to act upon. IMHO the idea that a law of physics could write itself and show up, fully functional at the moment it might be required is incomprehensible.

            “No brains, no concepts, including no Platonic abstract concepts.”

            Same claim as ‘no heavy nuclei, no Weak Force’. It’s a big universe. Does the WF sorta start existing end to end even in neighborhoods were there are yet to be any heavy nuclei? It seems magical to suppose that the very first nuclei to decay ‘crystallized’ a new law of physics from here to the furthest quasar. Did the new law propagate at the speed of light, or was it spooky law at a distance? Na, I’m not swallowing it.

            Same with ‘2’. Presuming materialism (no consciousness outside material brains). I can’t believe that math is created when it is discovered. What is discovered was already there. As Big Al so famously said, the moon is there even when we aren’t looking at it. Bohr isn’t so sure.

            “and above a certain size & complexity they had the neural equipment to form concepts”

            And that’s another thing: As life got smarter, well at what point were we smart enough to crystallize math out of nothing? Did is sorta ‘flicker’ for a while as the first organism started to become able to react to ‘2’? Say it was a fish. The first fish able to count, creates math out of nowhere. Then it dies. No more math! But wait! It had already laid it’s eggs, and they carry mom’s new smarts. So, does math die out until they hatch? Na.

            “all models are wrong, but some models are useful”

            I agree. This could be a strong counter (good pun eh?) argument because I agree that our models are ‘nothing’, they are just inventions that help us organize stuff. But models are arbitrary and they come and they go. Math is a sort of model too, so it would seem to share the same nothingness, but math is universal and eternal and unvarying so it seems to me that math is ‘true’.

            “especially when you labelled me a heretic”

            Don’t let it go to your head. You’re probably boringly conventional in some ways.

            “I hereby command you to sally forth without let or hindrance and acquire a copy of the book recommended by me: https://www.amazon.ca/Vehicles-Experiments-Psychology-Valentino-Braitenberg/dp/0262521121/ref=sr_1_1 Your life will not be the same again.”

            I’ll take a look.

            A fine duel sir. Me as Sir Percy 😉

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p53B0Ku-4BE

          • Andras Kovacs says

            “No brains, no concepts, including no Platonic abstract concepts.”

            Same claim as ‘no heavy nuclei, no Weak Force’.

            Let’s modify my experiment with the fMRI machine the following way: instead of cards with pictures of various # of entities on them being shown to the subject, the contents of the cards being ‘read’ to them, i.e. the contents of the cards are described verbally to the subject (“one egg”, “two apples”, “three dogs”, “two trees”, “four clouds”, “two tits”). Let’s presume that this has the same effect as showing the cards: some area(s) (possibly a single neuron) activate when the cards with two items on them are voiced, but not when the # of items differ from two (possibly other area(s) activate for one, three & four).

            So far, so good: I point to the activation pattern in case of two-ness being present on the card — conveyed visually or auditorily to the subject — and say “there’s the concept of two-ness”, and you say that “but two-ness exists independently of any particular instance of the concept arising in a particular brain”.

            Let’s say that the experiment is modified further by the subject being you & the cards containing pictures of animals of currently existing species and creatures from Greek mythology. So the list being voiced to you goes something like: “an aardvark”, “a centaur”, “a chinchilla”, “a chimera”, “a cyclops”, “a donkey”, “a lesser Egyptian jerboa”, “a gorgon”, “a minotaur”. You’re explicitly given the task before to decide if the current item is an example of a currently existing species or a creature from Greek mythology and move your left or right index finger accordingly. You’re a man of erudition, so you have no problems with making this kind of discrimination correctly: on the fMRI images, there’ll be some area(s) (possibly a single neuron) which activates when you decide that the item is a creature from Greek mythology. I point to these activation patterns and say “there’s the concept of Greek mythical creature-ness”.

            But creatures of Greek mythology do not exits independently in objective reality: the concept of Greek mythical creature-ness is about a set of non-existent — imaginary — things.

            When Homo sapiens sapiens dies out, Greek mythical creature-ness will cease to exist: there will be no human brains around in which the concept can possibly arise. Same with Platonic ideal forms or whatever he was coming up with.

            When all life on Earth dies out (which will happen in a billion years), then two-ness will cease to exist: there’ll be no critter around with a brain in which the concept of two-ness can possibly arise.

            Neither Greek mythical creature-ness nor two-ness (or number-ness, i.e. cardinality) or Platonic ideal forms can exist without brains in which concepts form.

            René Descartes was very right when he said cogito ergo sum: what this states most forcefully is that the existence of living beings is predicated on their information processing capabilities. We are of our behaviour; and our behaviour depends on how we process information coming in from our environments — down to our cellular level. (Information processing meaning how we map our input to our output, internally or externally.)

    • derek says

      True. Except that I can intentionally change my brain chemistry by thinking or focusing on something. If I stare at my wife’s breasts, or read Quillette, or pick up the book on calculus, or look at the deer that walked through our yard moments ago, or process some photos I took last weekend. These activities will create biochemical reactions that will have effects. I can reinforce neuron paths, I can create new ones (learning calculus creates new paths in my brain). All become part of the toolbox of knowledge and experience to call upon in my future.

      Occam’s Razor is about the simplest explanation being the most likely. That was Einsteins mistake. Our brains are extraordinarily complex, even chaotic. In the face of something unknowable at the moment, we fall to abstractions. A biochemical thingy, a soul. Both profoundly inadequate. Both touching on some aspect of this complex reality that presents itself.

  25. Closed Range says

    Overall, I think the article was rather simplistic and confused. It reminded me mostly of late night dorm discussions when I was at university (especially the quantum mechanics bits), which would now make me cringe. Broadly, the problem with the article is that it doesn’t take into account the different gradations of determinism and its common confusion with predictability, its meaning in different areas of science and what are the scales at which different phenomena affect outcomes.

    Starting with scale – randomness at one scale does not imply lack of determinism at the next scale. To put it in simple terms, the randomness in quantum mechanic effects has never been of itself the reason why a bridge fell down. This is the reason why Newtonian physics is just as valid now as it was centuries ago, when applied to situations at the correct scale.

    In particular, I don’t think that any scientist believes that quantum mechanic randomness have any bearing on the functioning of neurons and synapses. Your brain is deterministic in the sense that it’s state from one instant to the next is purely a function of it previous state and its inputs from stimuli. If you could rewind it back to its previous setting and give exactly the same inputs, you would get the same outcome. This is what physicists and mathematicians mean by determinism.

    This brings me to the difference between determinism and predictability. Your brain is a deterministic machine, but it is entirely unpredictable due to its complexity. By this I mean that there’s no practical way of knowing what the full state actually is, and even if you could guess it’s current state, it would be nearly impossible to reproduce it’s workings to know it’s next state (especially given that we have only our brains to comprehend such things).

    It is even possible, but not certain, that it is chaotic in the mathematical sense that small differences in inputs can have big differences in output. This however does not stop it from being less deterministic than an analogue watch, but unlike a watch it is it’s complexity that makes it unpredictable.

    If you’re thinking at this stage that I’m contradicting myself, then I suggest reading up about (pseudo)-random number generators: they are entirely deterministic processes that appear random in their behaviour. You will see there is no contradiction.

    It is around this scale that you can talk about free will. You don’t free will in the sense of a magic soul that can break the determinism in your brain. Yet you have free will in the sense that nobody can ever rig your stimuli to guarantee a certain outcome in your behaviour, due to its unpredictability and possible chaos. It is here that you have personal responsibility because you can never truly claim “they made me do it”.

    Yet, at the next scale of people’s lives, yes people are somewhat determined, despite their limited form of free will mentioned above. We know from twin studies that identical twins who were separated at birth (who therefore share the most similar brains, but different environments) broadly make similar choices in jobs, marriage, places to live, and share similar broad personality traits and interests. They often say they thought the same thing when hearing or saying something, and so on. Ultimately, their genes did determine a huge amount of their lives. This is what people mean by determinism at the genetic level for behaviour.

    I hope this explains better than the article how the word determinism mean different things in different scientific contexts, and lack of determinism in one area doesn’t contradict it’s presence in another. I could go on further into how quantum mechanics is a model for the world, and not necessarily a claim to there really being randomness (recall the random number generators) but it’s getting too long a post.

    • A C Harper says

      “Overall, I think the article was rather simplistic and confused.”

      Quite so. If you are going to write an essay about Free Will, Determinism, or Consciousness you have to be very careful to set out the meanings you are using for these words. Otherwise every reader will substitute their own meanings for such words. Swapping between individual characteristics and populations or between political and/or religious views just muddies the water further.

    • TJR says

      Good comment. The article is largely meaningless because the author does not define his terms properly.

      These arguments always seem to end up with people talking past each other because they are using different definitions of “free will” and “determinism”.

  26. Louis says

    We do have free will. You know that you do because you experience yourself making decisions – choosing between alternatives – as a result of your values at that moment in time. Introspection is a valid means of recognising this phenomena. Although an accurate explanation of free will does not dominate academia, there are nevertheless some philosophers, predominantly from the Objectivist school, who are pushing for a rational description of it. Onkar Ghate is senior fellow and chief content officer at the Ayn Rand Institute, here he gives a lecture on the Objectivist theory of free will which is both secular and unique in the history of philosophy: https://ari.aynrand.org/blog/2017/02/27/seize-the-reins-of-your-mind-the-objectivist-theory-of-free-will-video

  27. deBarnik says

    It is quite a shame that there is such a widespread misunderstanding of quantum mechanics that some people are actually still entertaining a deterministic viewpoint.

    We can safely state that there are fundamental limits and proclivities in the animal condition, certainly biologically dictated, and that our choices are limited by these conditions, but let’s not spread a misinformed doubt about what appears to be the very nature of the Universe: given the last seventy years of quantum physics we can reasonably state that the Universe does not behave in a deterministic manner at the very fundamental level. Period.

    Make of that what you may.

    • Closed Range says

      deBarnik

      Actually, no, not period. The only widespread misunderstanding of Quantum mechanics is that because it is not deterministic, that anything else cannot be, especially at other scales. Take a computer for instance – it’s transistors work on quantum mechanical principles, yet we would be insane to treat computers as anything except deterministic machines, which produce the same output for the same inputs. The deterministic viewpoint for many areas of science is entirely valid and robustly supported. See my longer post above for more details.

      • deBarnik says

        Closed Range

        The fact that there are local examples of systems that approximate a deterministic behavior does not clash with my previous statement, which was: the Universe does not behave in a deterministic manner at the very fundamental level.

  28. Locketopus says

    I can see it appealing to those of strong religious conviction

    That’s entirely dependent on what those religious convictions are. The question of predestination versus freewill has a long, long history of debate (and sometimes outright warfare) between different schools of religious thought.

  29. dirk says

    Predestination and determinism rules under authoritarianism , whether secular or religious. Equality and free will are the new humanitarian rules and beliefs, they largely replaced how it used to be, for millennia.

  30. derek says

    How about both and neither?

    I read one of Diamond’s books and found it interesting, but he always seemed to push some basic insight too far. Anyone writing a book trying to place some story upon history, where their audience likely has never missed a meal in their lives, needs to hammer in the real fact that most of history was about the constant struggle to get regular meals. People were forced into decisions by that exigency. The description of how the grain diet spread across similar temperate zones, and the cultural assumptions that went with it were about people being able to reliably feed themselves and their children.

    So obviously we deal with external and internal limits and impulses. A deterministic way of thinking is an attempt to impose an order where there seems to be vague patterns.

    These arguments remind me of the path of understanding the brain. The Einstein Bohr disagreements have a similar flavor. There came to be an understanding of the brain that was deterministic, this group of cells did this, and the researchers came up with maps of the brain function centers. Which is real, measurable and reasonably reliable. Certain ways of thinking and treatment methodologies were derived from that model. A person would have a stroke, they could determine by the loss of function what part of the brain was damaged.

    Then that same person would regain the ability to speak, walk, with the brain injury and damage not healing. It seems the patterns in function are loosely defined but the brain is a dynamic constantly changing organ. It is one of these fields where advances in knowledge raise more unknowns.

    I would tend towards Dr. Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. He describes our brain as two poles constantly pushing and pulling each other. One pole is speculative and capable of spinning off in any direction, the other pole more as a steward of memory and learned experience. Both are necessary as we face familiar and new experiences over our lives. We are influenced by everything, and the processes that lead to some external manifestation in action or speech are very very complex. Starting from the basic exigencies of biology where we need food and shelter, the inherent physical exigencies of reproduction. Then the need for social interaction that has many benefits. And up the ladder to the more esoteric pursuits. Including some sense of right and wrong.

    One of the most enlightening bits of conversation that I heard between Harris and Peterson was in Vancouver where Harris was challenging Peterson and any religious person to justify the discussions of child sacrifice in the ancient texts. Abraham and Isaac being one example. This in response to Peterson talking about sacrifice as being the language of seeing the future. There was a moral grandstanding to Harris’ arguments, where enlightened atheists would never sacrifice their children to some god. This in a city where there are roughly 30 abortions for every 100 live births.

    • dirk says

      Recently, they found a grave of 100s of sacrificed children in Peru. The question here is, of course: were the parents proud that their children were chosen? Or were they sad?? Or, maybe, both, not knowing what to feel??

      I wonder whether any of us, people now, are able to know which is which!!

      • neoteny says

        Some parents felt pride; some sadness; some a mixture of two. Parents of sacrificial children come in every size & shape.

  31. Physics finds that determinism plus locality are incompatible with data. And that data are compatible with quantum mechanics, a local theory that abandons determinism. Due to decoherence, this is likely irrelevant for complex macroscopic bodies. An interesting experiment in neurobiology predicts some choices (such as moving the left or right hand) a fraction of second before that the person is conscious of making the choice.

  32. NT Wilcox says

    In laboratory studies of decision-making, whether by psychologists, neuroscientists, or economists, perfect predictability is most noticeable by its complete absence. In designs with repeated trials, retest reliability is always well less than perfect. And this has been true for at least 68 years, from the 1951 classic by statisticians Mosteller and Nogee in The Journal of Political Economy until today.

    When I read theoretical arguments in favor of full on determinism of human choice, I think they sound nice, but completely irrelevant to anyone practicing any empirical science of human behavior. What was true when R. Duncan Luce published Individual Choice Behavior in 1959 is still true today: Any deterministic theory of human choice is almost immediately falsified by any rigorous attempt to test it.

    • neoteny says

      theoretical arguments in favor of full on determinism of human choice

      As I’ve explained above, “full on” deterministic processes are able to produce outcomes which are random to human observers. So manifestations of human choice can be the outcome of a “full on” deterministic process.

      • NT Wilcox says

        But if they will be random to human observers–which empirical scientists are–what would be the point of modeling the process as a deterministic one rather than (say) a stochastic drift diffusion process (as the neuroscientific bleeding edge would model a valence difference between alternatives today)? If there is no point, then explain again why I should care deeply about Harris?

        • neoteny says

          what would be the point of modeling the process as a deterministic one

          The point isn’t of modeling the human choice process in detail, but rather the acknowledgement that there’s no necessity of immaterial or quantum effects for random-looking human choices. Macroscopic & “full on” deterministic processes are able to generate random-looking human choices.

          • NT Wilcox says

            Ok, I can live with “no necessity.” Consider some other issues, though. Being a very social species, very few human choices have consequences solely to the self; choices also have consequences to others. Because of this the language and concepts of game theory come into play–and in game theory, optimal strategies frequently imply randomization over strategies. Therefore, we have evolutionary reasons to be equipped with algorithms that perform randomization. Even prior to sociality, any animal that had prey animals in its lineage would have been playing competitive interspecies survival games, which would have again generated a strong evolutionary demend for randomization algorithms. Finally, even in choice producing outcomes only for the self, a non-stationary foraging environment (e.g. resources that are depletable, followed by regeneration) implies that any learning algorithm that locks in on one choice alternative is fatal; flexible learning benefits from sampling, and that again suggests the need for randomization.

            Maybe choice determinism isn’t such a biologically reasonable thing after all; there are lots of reasons to think many organisms will be equipped to randomize or, at the very least, will have algorithms capable of generating choices that are observationally indistinguishable from randomized choices.

          • Andras Kovacs says

            Ok, I can live with “no necessity.”

            Good for you. Last I checked, Roger Penrose and co. was still pushing the quantum microtubule explanation for the randomness in human choice.

            we have evolutionary reasons to be equipped with algorithms that perform randomization. Even prior to sociality, any animal that had prey animals in its lineage would have been playing competitive interspecies survival games, which would have again generated a strong evolutionary demend for randomization algorithms. Finally, even in choice producing outcomes only for the self, a non-stationary foraging environment (e.g. resources that are depletable, followed by regeneration) implies that any learning algorithm that locks in on one choice alternative is fatal; flexible learning benefits from sampling, and that again suggests the need for randomization.

            I agree with all of this and would add the intraspecies survival games which Homo sapiens sapiens plays. The ancient Romans observed that homo homini lupus: that humans exploit each other. Being able to generate non-predictable, i.e. random behaviour lowers one’s chances of falling victim to someone who’s able to predict the mark’s behaviour.

            This is why psychopathy will never die out: psychopaths have extremely keen psychological insight into non-psychopathic people’s thoughts (thought processes). This provides them with quite an edge in manipulating non-psychopaths, which is indeed a head start in human reproduction. The average non-psychopath male is scared shitless about approaching a female because of the risk of rejection; a psychopath has no such compunction. (PUAs are basically employing psychopathic methods for sexual conquest.)

            I’m posting this under my full name to show my appreciation for your comments: this is the highest grade of scientific thinking I’ve encountered so far here. I doff my (non-existent) hat to you.

  33. MB says

    “He notes that a theory of free will presupposes that before we make a decision something occurs inside of us that is completely separate from the cause and effect chain of events preceding it in the outside world”.
    I don’t see how that’s a precondition for free will. Maybe a perfectly free will is rare or nonexistent, but will can still be free to some more more limited extent, while also being influenced by external factors and limited by natural laws.
    It’s just like a perfectly straight line does not actually exist in nature, except maybe at subatomic scales, but we can still come up with pretty good approximations. And we call those straight lines, all the while knowing they come somewhat short.
    Whether we ought to try to maximize freedom of the will (whose will?) in this sense is a separate issue.

  34. MB says

    “He notes that a theory of free will presupposes that before we make a decision something occurs inside of us that is completely separate from the cause and effect chain of events preceding it in the outside world”.
    I don’t see how that’s a precondition for free will. Maybe a perfectly free will is rare or nonexistent, but will can still be free to some more more limited extent, while also being influenced by external factors.
    It’s just like a perfectly straight line does not actually exist in nature, except maybe at subatomic scales, but we can still come up with pretty good approximations. And we call those straight lines, all the while knowing they come somewhat short.
    Whether we ought to try to maximize freedom of the will (whose will?) in this sense is a separate issue.

  35. codadmin says

    Men are more violent than females because of biology.

    If this is true, which it is, then biological determinism exists.

    You can guarantee, 100% guarantee, that even though some women are more violent than some men, men on average are more violent than women…because of biology.

    Of course, biology is only controversial because of race, and in particular because blacks have vastly direct averages than all other groups…most notably East Asains.

  36. Sociologist says

    The objection to biological determinism comes mostly from the anti-liberal progressive (marxist and/or postmodernist) Left – believers in big government, centralized authority and the nanny state – and NOT from libertarians who believe in individualistic agency

  37. dirk says

    About free will vs determinism: the essential differences between animals and humans have been gradually lessened last time, animals also use instruments, have a language, even consciousness sometimes, empathy , jealousy etc etc. But a free will? Not yet come across. What about a child of 2, speaking already a few words and behaving sometimes as a grown up. But can you say he/she has a free will? I doubt very much, he/she just follows inclinations, drives and likes/don’t likes. So when is the free will forming? And how?

    • Andras Kovacs says

      So when is the free will forming? And how?

      And where does it go when we go to sleep?

      • dirk says

        That’s what I’m going to do right now, it’s my time. No idea what I’m going to dream, do I dream myself? Or are these always funny and strange dreams sent to me? Anyhow, one thing is certain, it’s none of my free will.

        • Andras Kovacs says

          it’s none of my free will

          But you wrote this of your free will. 🙂

          Have a restful, regenerative sleep.

  38. Aristodemus says

    Jared Diamond has promoted biological explanations for human affairs. He claimed, for example, that human groups vary, on average, in their genetic intelligence, and suggested an evolutionary reason for it. Therefore Diamond has blasphemed against one of the holiest tenants of modern progressive theology. It’s unsurprising he’s come under the threat of assault. The more interesting question, I think, is how he’s managed to remain as quasi-respectable as he still seems to be .

    The answer, I believe, is that the superior people, according to Diamond, are the primitive indigenes of New Guinea and elsewhere. This is his reasoning, as I recall. The day-to-day survival of a Korowai hunter-gatherer, say, depends on his applied intelligence. If he’s dumb, he’s unlikely to develop the complex skill set needed to survive the lethal challenges of his environment. He’s much more likely to die. The smart hunter-gatherer, however, is more apt to pass his genes on to future generations. Thus, primitive conditions select for intelligence. By contrast, “civilization” is dysgenic. Stupid citizens are far more likely than otherwise to survive and leave a genetic legacy, and this depresses the average intelligence of the society. Diamond doesn’t just challenge traditional supremacist ideas; he inverts them, claiming peoples historically stigmatized as inferior are really the superior ones. From the perspective of the modern academic left, it’s more acceptable to venture such hypotheses if the opprobriated group is (at least implicitly) white Europeans. I believe the term is “punching up.”

    For the record, I don’t know or care whether New Guineans are smarter on average than, say, Norwegians. They might well be, and for the very reason that Diamond suggests. But if human cognitive capacities are to any degree heritable, as they do seem to be, then its implausible that they’re exactly evenly distributed across all ancestral populations.To insist that they must be is anti-evolutionary. Like the traditionalist right, the modern left is creationistic. Both make moral arguments, disguised as evidentiary ones, against evolution or its implications. Both form priesthoods to defend and disseminate dogma and enforce public conformity. Both are driven by a lust to uncover and punish sinners and heretics.

    • dirk says

      Most probably, the natives in New Guinea are smarter in catching an emu or a wild boar, the Norwegians in finding their way through the trafic in Oslo. Imagine, that same Norwegian somewhere in the bush in New Guinea!!
      Jared only speaks about the history of mankind. In the style begun by Marvin Harris in the 1970s. It was an eyeopener for all of us, young weathermen, and all recently fallen from our christian believes, but still living with the ideas of free will, sin, a God that had determined it all, forgiving, punishment with hell or eternal happiness in heaven. What now??? The taboo of eating pigs was just a biological adaptation to a desert life??? We all bought his books and were flabbergasted!

    • codadmin says

      I always wondered why Jared Diamond was so stupid. He’s a product of civilisation!

  39. Curle says

    @NT,

    “ Do we have to run down the long list of behaviors and characteristics that have, at one time or another, been empirically settled? Homosexuality as a mental illness? Blacks as subhuman? Women as constitutionally too delicate and irrational for the affairs of men?“

    The authority for none of these claims came from empirical processes. It would behoove you to learn what ‘empirical’ means.

    • NT Wilcox says

      Ok, I’m always willing to learn: what does empirical mean?

      On another subject, what does the preceding parade of sneers have to do with the observation that the retest reliability of choice is well short of perfect? Tell me, please, how that observation is obviously freighted by cisgender, racial and sexist bias? I’m all ears.

      • Curle says

        The comment should have read NP for “Nakatomi Plaza” not NT, sorry. The quote is from NP’s comment.

      • Curle says

        Reply was intended for NP (Nakatomi Plaza). Sorry.

  40. Nicholas Decker says

    It is odd, but one must recognize that while one does not and cannot have free will, that is utterly irrelevant to your life. From your perspective, you do have free will, and you must act as though you do. When people say “it is written” or words to that effect, they misunderstand what not having free will is. Determinism is simply that whatever does happen always will have happened. It does not manifest itself as some irresistible force pulling your life one way or another. It simply is life.

    Also, early in the article, you mention the debate between between bohr and einstein, but I believe you err in implying that the two options are the only two. Just because we can’t know everything doesn’t mean that not everything is knowable. The knowledge of those things is the providence of Providence, should it exist.

  41. Casper says

    Hard determinism and attention schema hypothesis. Pray you’re capable of being nice and loved

  42. A C Harper says

    Do miracles exist? Does magic exist? Either of those would undermine determinism – but you would have to propose a mechanism for how the non-natural interacts with the natural. Asserting that ‘a god did it’ or ‘hidden dimensions exist’ or even that Free Will exists is a point of view rather than proof.

  43. We don’t understand consciousness. Absent that understanding, we have insufficient data to answer the question of whether we have free will or not. Under the circumstances it is not irrational to simply assume the existence of free will. After all, if the assumption is wrong, it cannot possibly do any avoidable harm.

  44. DNY says

    @BillyJoe And what is the mechanism of the diffraction pattern appearing when the two slits don’t have detectors, not being there when they do, and being there again when they have detectors but the information from the detectors is erased before the electrons hit the screen? (Let’s do it with electrons, rather than photons, to give more time to erase the data.)

    Not having a mechanism may make something seem incoherent to people with a certain frame of mind, but lack of a mechanism does not make the “incoherent” notion false.

    Have you considered the possibility (maybe even likelihood) that panpsychism is true? Certainly serious active philosophers of mind have. There’s a charming quote from the philosopher John Perry, “If you think about consciousness long enough, you either become a panpsychist or you go into administration.”

  45. DNY says

    If one goes the whole way down to the the physical level, then either determinism is simply false, or one must admit non-local causes from an arbitrary distance away (which causation is effectively superluminal in speed). This is the upshot to the observed violation of Bell’s inequalities, which violation show that quantum mechanical phenomena cannot be explained by a classical local hidden variables theory.

    And, if one admits non-local causation to try to save physical determinism, you’re left with the problem that you can’t observe arbitrarily distant causes, so for application to human affairs, you might as well not be a determinist.

    • Eddie Marcia says

      “either determinism is simply false”

      It isn’t “false”. It is not even wrong. If determinism was “true” there would be no possible way to know it, since your beliefs could not be other than what they are, and there would be no possible standard against which to assess truth or falsehood.

      Determinism is a radically self-undermining (and extremely naive) belief system that afflicts people with very high IQs and virtually zero actual intelligence.

  46. Eddie Marcia says

    “a process they call “scientism”

    That is not what scientism means. So-called “intellectuals” of the Sam Harris variety (and a not inconsiderable portion of Quillette types) are apparently afflicted with various intellectual scotomas which render it impossible for them to understand any rubric other than the one to which they are married.

    Scientism is the belief that the entirety and fullness of cosmic reality is reducible to that which is accessible via the scientific method (empirical investigation). This is so obviously childish that people like John Gray have little trouble eviscerating Harris and his ilk (Google Gray’s writings on these flyweight “intellectuals” for more).

    You would think that anyone quoting Einstein would pause to reflect upon the work of Godel, of whom Einstein was in awe (he once said he only went to Princeton in order to be able to walk in the evenings with Godel). Godel proved once and for all the common-sense notion that no non-trivial rational system can prove it’s own axioms. For any given system (such as the scientific method) there will be logical statements that are non-provable via that system but are still true.

    This piece — like so much at Quillette — is the product of an impoverished intellect. Quillette needs to move beyond the sophomoric musings of the cosplay set.

    For those who sense that there is something profoundly superficial about the Quillette zeitgeist (yet are even more nauseated by the prospect of “progressive” “thought”) try for example Bob Godwin’s “One Cosmos” blog. You may not agree with him, but at least it isn’t shallow tripe.

  47. Andras Kovacs says

    Scientism is the belief that the entirety and fullness of cosmic reality is reducible to that which is accessible via the scientific method (empirical investigation).

    This is one of the definitions (or interpretations) of scientism. But there’s Hayek’s take on the issue: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Counter-Revolution_of_Science

    Godel proved once and for all the common-sense notion that no non-trivial rational system can prove it’s own axioms.

    As Wikipedia says:

    Gödel published his two incompleteness theorems in 1931 when he was 25 years old, one year after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna.

    The first incompleteness theorem states that for any self-consistent recursive axiomatic system powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of the natural numbers (for example Peano arithmetic), there are true propositions about the naturals that cannot be proved from the axioms. […]

    He also showed that neither the axiom of choice nor the continuum hypothesis can be disproved from the accepted axioms of set theory, assuming these axioms are consistent.

    For any given system (such as the scientific method) there will be logical statements that are non-provable via that system but are still true.

    The scientific method isn’t a system: most definitely isn’t a self-consistent recursive axiomatic system.

  48. Itzik Basman says

    What is missing from this essay and what it needs is an elaboration of how compatibilism—“the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Because free will is typically taken to be a necessary condition of moral responsibility, compatibilism is sometimes expressed as a thesis about the compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism.”—strongly arguably resolves, as just noted, the ostensible impasse between free will and determinism.

  49. dirk says

    This afternoon, I took only 1 beer, instead of my usual 2. The waiter said to me: what? only one today? yes, I said, paid and went out for shopping.

    Was this now an example of free will? Or, in some way, of determinism?

    Or, maybe, of both??

  50. Cranky Badger says

    Another essay that equates free will with having choices. Determinism is dead simple: at the moment you choose, you couldn’t have made a different choice. Whether or not the idea is appealing doesn’t relate to the fact of the matter.

  51. dirk says

    I would say, there are 2 types of choices and cases of free will.

    1) where it doesn’t matter which one you choose: take the left road or the right. take 1 beer instead of 2, read a book or work in the garden

    2) where one thing is better for you, or somebody else, the other worse
    -help your wife with the dishes instead of having a beer
    -visit your old, naughty aunt and buy her flowers
    – take risks in a war situation for your country

    I wonder, the first can even occur with animals and small children,
    the second is on morals and ethics. On sinning and crime.

    What about determinism in both cases?

    • Andras Kovacs says

      <

      blockquote>where it doesn’t matter which one you choose: take the left road or the right.

      <

      blockquote>

      Ah, but why do you make a choice at all? Why are you on the road? If you have a place you want to reach, then it is highly unlikely that travelling on the left and right road toward that destination of yours impose the exact same cost on you — in which case it is true that it doesn’t matter which one you choose. You choose between the left & right road precisely because it does matter to you what costs are imposed on you as the consequence of your choice.

      • dirk says

        OK AK, the choices of the birds of prey, avoiding unnecessary loss of energy to catch the prey. But often, in a park or nature trail, it doesn’t matter so much, you have to go somewhere, the path is splitting up. In fact, I often (not always) prefer the roads without choices. Almost daily, again and again to have to decide where to go. My wife says: you should plan your hikes and vacations properly beforehand, but I never do, planning vacations means boring days without surprises.

        • Andras Kovacs says

          But often, in a park or nature trail, it doesn’t matter so much

          If that’s so, then you aren’t making any choices with selecting one of the paths: the two paths do not differ in any appreciable manner to you.

  52. dirk says

    The subject has my interest: what about all those deterministic economic laws on human behaviour, even quantified: if incomes rise by so much %, meat consumption will rise by so much, and fertility of women will decrease by so much (and thereby, world population will reach a limit at so many billion)….etc etc. Where is human freedom here?? Not of 1 person, but of the millions? Any reason for anthropologists to become angry, like in Diamond’s case?? I would think so.

  53. Surface Reflection says

    Is the DNA the primary cause?
    To all who think that it all begins and ends with DNA… what creates, shapes and changes the DNA?
    Selection, yes… Selection according to what? Fittest for what?

    The answer is – The environment rules all.
    It created DNA and it controls how it evolves and what it produces. Not just the natural environment but any environment we ourselves create – which shapes and molds us in turn – which we shape and affect in turn, in endless feedback loops. Add epigenetic influence on that and there is no fundamental “DNA” to talk about. Its just a tool. A putty shaped by everything in reality, including our minds and emotions – which are connected and a part of the grand meta environments we exist in.

    As for Sam and his nonsensical fallacious argument, its is only an absurdity he himself creates that he argues against. And to a large extent against any form of religious notion about the free will.
    Thus its nothing more then ping-pong between two binary extremes. Both nonsensical and absurdly unrealistic.

    The Will is not absolutely free of “everything”, nor is it absolutely and absurdly predetermined or pre-decided by… what? What part of our brains or neurological systems “makes those decisions” as Sam asserts in his absurd anti scientific rants.

    The freedom of will is in degrees and variations, different less or more depending on specific situations and conditions. Thats the only common sense and realistic truth about it. Not some absurd anti scientific and practically insane absolute extremes.

    Whats more, the very cause and effect nature of our reality, this universe – can be seen as precise and determined ONLY when observed backwards in time, when probabilities have collapsed and have been determined. Thats why time exists. Or, why we experience it as we do. Thats the difference between past – present and the future. The Universe could not exist if all was predetermined – literally.

  54. “an “angry anthropologist””

    Yep, if there’s one thing everyone lives in fear of, it’s an angry anthropologist!

    • Andras Kovacs says

      Angry anthropologists are scarier than zombies.

      • dirk says

        Anthropologists and determinism, a special couple.

        I missed in the article and comments the history of how geographers and anthropolgists looked at things throughout the 20th century at the fysiographic determinism, Diamond is a new adept of. In fact, his predecessors early 20th century were many, I mentioned Friedrich Ratzel, founder of anthropo-geography, in the US a certain Ellsworth Huntington was quite popular at the time. Both taught that climate and geography more or less determined the cultural and political succes of nations, and their philosophy was kind of excuse to colonize nations and regions with less favourable climate (Huntington: 15 -18 degrees Celsius is optimal for activities, moral and creativity).

        Small wonder that this school was left and forgotten after worldwar II, time of decolonisation. However, there pop up Marvin Harris and Diamond again with those old ideas, and again, with the same popularity Huntington once had (take note, not Samuel), as well as appearance on the scene of the angry type of anthropologists (of the likes of Margareth Mead).

        Anybody here acquainted with that Huntington and his school of thought? Would love to know.

  55. Jim says

    Anybody else catch the Rush reference? Wouldn’t be surprised if Neil Peart reads Quillette.

  56. Germanus says

    It seems to me that the determinism vs free will debate hinges on a Groundhog Day scenario type thought experiment. In other words, take a day on earth and let it play out for 24 hours. Then reset to the exact same starting point (so that nobody can remember anything, and there is no evidence the previous day happened) and let it play again. Assuming all external physical events and phenomena occur identically, would that day proceed exactly the same for everyone? Would everybody make the same choices, the same decisions, etc. Would it be like Groundhog Day (minus the protagonist) and you would have an infinite unvarying loop every time you reset? If so then I believe it precludes free will. Everything has been determined, but as another commenter pointed out, nothing can be predicted (until after it has already happened because of the incomprehensible complexity). But after watching the events unfold everything can be predicted. So in this sense our free will is an illusion of time. I tend to ascribe to this view, as I can’t picture how I would behave differently in a repeated situation, when I have no knowledge of the previous identical situation. Any choice I made today was based on my entire history of behaviour, teachings, memory, my environment, my surroundings, my state of being at the time, genetics, intelligence, reflex, consciousness, etc, etc. – nearly infinite complexity. But place me in that same spot again with all the same variables and would I not make the same decision, regardless of the incredible complexity of the determining factors? Ahead of time even I may not be able to tell you what I would do, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been determined…

    Or could you claim that our cyclic day would play out differently? Could somebody exercising their free will decide to turn left instead of right in the exact same circumstances causing a cascade of unknowable alterations to the ‘timeline’. I don’t see how this is possible but if it is then the Groundhog Day loop is broken and people would have free will, and no future action depending on humanity could be predicted with certainty…

    • Surface Reflection says

      An experiment that is literally impossible – cannot be used to claim anything.

      • Germanus says

        This type of experiment is impossible but I think we can simplify it and retain the core idea:
        Place a person on a chair in a featureless room with coloured balls which starts off completely dark. Turn on the lights and give them a programmed announcement about picking a ball and letting them choose. Turn off the lights, ‘delete the memory’ and repeat.
        Obviously the issue here is deleting the specific memory but there are interesting breakthroughs in this area. May even be possible with drugs (memory forming impairment?). Could be possible one day.
        And whether time would still play a factor may ultimately be unknowable. Even though it would appear to be exactly the same the subject’s state would at some level change…
        It would be interesting however to see whether the subject picks the same ball every time. Could be a variety of test possibilities – pull a lever, or choose a song they’d like to hear at that moment, or walk around in a random pattern in the room… would it be the same pattern every time?

        • Surface Reflection says

          Thats not simplifying it, thats shifting to a completely different “experiment” which is nonsensical and irrelevant by itself. Also, you cant “simplify” impossible and completely unrealistic nonsense and get anything sane.

          Taken on its own, this second experiment wouldn’t prove anything – and you certainly cant presume what would happen in it, so it makes no sense to argue based on it…? Whats the point? And even if it showed something – whatever – it wouldnt mean anything either way.

          Ultimately the will is neither completely absurdly free from the physical reality – the very idea is absurd, but neither it is completely controlled and predetermined which is an equally absurd assumption. And it cant be forced into such absurd binary extremes.

          Because reality just doesnt work like that – whatever anyone claims based on no proofs at all.

  57. Neil says

    The author writes that to believe in free will is “to flirt with pseudoscience or magical thinking.” In fact, there are strong naturalistic explanations of free will. According to the hard-headed philosopher Christian List, to deny free will is real is like denying unemployment is real because the economy is produced by underlying physical processes.

  58. Lawrence Ferraris says

    As long as you believe you have some control over thought and actions aka free will, you will never know your true self. Once this is “seen”, all distinctions without exception become void yet nothing changes.

  59. Yeppit Yeffen says

    John Bell accepted both non-determinism & determinism…both are clarified from di-synchronous time.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discontinuity_(Postmodernism)

    What we need to know is why he defers his concept of ghosts in contrast with the supernal…
    Free speech is somehow different in contrast with understanding in knowledge, thinking of IQ for the leaders of China for example, contrasted to Jordan’s ICQ .) [intelligence.chaos.quotient]

    Peterson Explains Psychoanalytic Theory – YouTube

    American Theocracy Kevin Phillips 2006

    2:31 Pm

  60. BrainFireBob says

    My longstanding 2 cents:

    Humans are self-programming algorithmic and heuristic machines. Free will is expressed during writing of the program (Primarily childhood and adolescence, primary form of expression being what teaching we accept and what we reject), at which point we tend to go on autopilot without something catastrophic, such as trauma, causing a glitch leading to re-evaluation of the program.

    Extension: The age of reason, therefore, and age of consent, are based on the age that the average individual has a sufficiency of heuristics to function without needing assistance/input from other “sufficiently completely” heuristic machines..

    Postulate: This is also why people freeze when confronted with completely unpredicted situations- no pre-existing heuristic exists. Example: Running into a non-deniable binary when all previous heuristics are structured around a binary.

    TL, DR: Kids need to be taught choice and self-awareness, not propaganda. It’s harmful because once written into the noetic network, it is literally damaging to remove.

    Extended postulate: Determining the root of the disagreement is how you build consensus; illuminating programming glitches and/or the appearance of incompatibility is step 1.

    More detailed version:

    Ever see a kid catch a ball with their face as a toddler? They don’t know it hurts yet. Once that happens, you can see them developing associations and testing heuristics- is it the ball that hurt? How hard it is? Speed? They already have a heuristic- a prior- to avoid pain, so it’s a matter of developing the “avoid pain” heuristic to include actions in case of fast-moving objects coming at the primary sensor suite; to whit, kids learn to block or duck faster than they could have consciously chosen to do so.

  61. “Sam Harris has adamantly argued against the existence of free will. He notes that a theory of free will presupposes that before we make a decision something occurs inside of us that is completely separate from the cause and effect chain of events preceding it in the outside world. Whatever occurs inside of us must be completely different from a random roll of the dice, as well. Given the absurdity of such a mental process, Harris rejects the possibility of its existence. This view is actually very close to the majority of philosophers and scientists who think about such things. To argue otherwise seems to flirt with pseudoscience or magical thinking.”

    Someone once said that philosophy consists of trying to solve problems thought up by philosophers. The Determinist/Free Will problem is one of the great pseudo problems of philosophy.

    Experience itself is dynamic and paradoxical and we use words and concepts to help us order it and give it coherence. Both “determinism” and “free will” are WORDS which describe aspects of experience. Those aspects are always and ultimately interconnected but our words facilitate the illusion that they describe descrete entities.

    If reality is indeed unified how are Sam Harris’s “cause and effect chain of events” not interconnected with billions and billions of other cause and effect chain of events? In other words, the very phrase “cause and effect chain of events” is an abstraction from reality.

    On the other hand we do indeed seem to have an experience we call “free will”. As Nietzsche points out, this is an experience of potency and power but it doesn’t logically follow that we are simply making up our actions ex nihilo. We are still, as we always have been and always will be, one form of energy swimming in a sea of energy.

    It’s interesting to note that both “philosophies” – Pure Determinism and Pure Free Will – imply a kind of totalitarian rule. The former implies the rule of experts who have the most “information”; the latter implies the rule of bureaucrats to insure everybody gets to make up their own version of reality equally.

    So here’s one empirical fact: There appears to be people who believe everything is determined and there appear to be people who believe in pure free wiil. May Fate protects the rest of us from their delusions.

  62. Paul Yates says

    Sam Harris cannot logically argue against the existence of free will. If no one else has free will, nor does he, so he has no wilful capacity to construct an argument, therefore his argument is predetermined and without any weight. That does not necessarily prove that he is wrong, merely that his position is irrelevant.

  63. Pingback: My critique of a defense of free will in Quillette « Why Evolution Is True

  64. Pingback: Why We Shouldn't Bet on Having Free Will—A Reply to William Edwards - Quillette

Comments are closed.