Philosophy, recent

In Defense of Compatibilism: A Response to Edwards and Coyne

I was excited to read William Edwards’s article “The Academic Quarrel Over Determinism.” As a philosophy professor, I teach my students about that quarrel every semester. As I read the article, however, I was disturbed by what was missing from Edwards’s account. Jerry Coyne’s rejoinder “Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Fee Will” only deepened my frustration.

Edwards vs. Coyne

William Edwards frames the quarrel as an argument between thinkers who believe in free will and those who believe we live in an entirely deterministic universe. He argues that it feels like we’re in control of our actions in a way that makes us morally responsible for those actions but that this feeling is “dismissed as an illusion by serious, contemporary neuroscientists.” Rather than bowing to the verdict of the neuroscientists, though, Edwards recommends that we see the question of whether free will exists as “the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century.” There’s “too much about the universe that we don’t understand” for us to be confident that the neuroscientists are right, so it’s appropriate for us to decide what to believe on the basis of factors other than evidence. Along the lines of Pascal’s original argument for belief in the existence of God, Edwards says we have much to gain and nothing to lose by understanding ourselves to be free and morally responsible beings. As such, we should believe that determinism is false.

In his response, Coyne makes several good points. He understates the potential downsides of abandoning our belief in moral responsibility, but he’s on firmer ground when he argues that, although we have good reason to wish that something is true, this isn’t a good reason to believe that it is true. Moreover, we may not be any more able to force ourselves to believe something that we know defies the available evidence “than a tiger could force itself to turn vegetarian.”

Coyne does not, however, question Edwards’s assumption that a kind of human agency and determinism are incompatible. In fact, he explicitly affirms it. Thus, both articles exclude the possibility that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, we don’t have to choose between the benefits of believing in human will and moral responsibility on the one hand, and forming our beliefs on the basis of evidence on the other. That’s a shame because—in academic philosophy, at least—the question of whether agency and determinism are compatible is what the quarrel is about.

Hume and Later Compatibilists

David Hume was exactly the kind of Enlightenment philosopher who regarded belief in empirically baseless but attractive claims the way that a tiger might regard a plate of tofu. Hume argued against belief in Heaven and Hell, for example, at a time when that sort of thing could land a person in serious trouble. Nevertheless, he argued that we have free will.

Coyne and Edwards both seem to think that the kind of “free will” we’d need to be held morally responsible for our actions is “contra-causal free will.” In other words, if we’re truly free, then our decisions can override a physical chain of cause and effect. Hume didn’t think we have this kind of freedom. In Chapter Eight of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (“Of Liberty and Necessity”), he argued that, even when we don’t know everything about what led Person P to decide to perform Action A instead of Action B, we shouldn’t jump from that premise to the conclusion that there isn’t a coherent cause-and-effect explanation. Hume compared human psychology to clockwork. When a clock stops working, a peasant might only be able to report that “sometimes they stop working,” whereas a trained clockmaker would be able to find the tiny grain of sand that got caught in the gears. Nevertheless, Hume thought, as long as P picked A because he preferred A rather than because, for example, an assassin threatened to shoot him if he picked B, P chose A of his own free will. In other words, Hume thought that the freedom we need to be responsible for our actions is freedom from coercion.

This was an early version of compatibilism, and it’s vulnerable to some obvious objections. What about a kleptomaniac who steals a bauble to satisfy his compulsion, or a heroin addict feeding an addiction? More fancifully, what if a mad scientist were to implant a chip in P’s brain that caused him to have an overwhelming desire to do A? In each of these scenarios, coercion isn’t present, but P doesn’t seem to be in control of his actions in a way that makes him responsible for them—or, at the very least, he seems to have diminished control and hence diminished responsibility.

Many post-Hume compatibilists would say that in order to be responsible, P must be free not just from coercion but from other factors such as addiction, compulsion, and manipulation by brain implant. Nevertheless, they do not claim that P must be placed entirely beyond the influence of genetic and environmental factors to be responsible.

Responsibility and Punishment

The compatibilist conceptions of free will that have been discussed so far might strike some readers as silly and uninteresting redefinitions of free will. Coyne has certainly suggested as much elsewhere. According to this critique, “humans have free will if you define ‘free will’ in a compatiblist way” might be equivalent to saying, “God exists if you define the sum total of all material things that exist as ‘God.’” Any atheist worth his salt would respond to this by saying that in that sense God exists, but who cares? This simply isn’t the “God” whose existence is disputed by atheists.

This objection misses the point. The argument about whether to use the phrase “free will” to describe (a) freedom from coercion, (b) some more sophisticated compatibilist definition of freedom, or (c) contra-causal freedom might indeed be a matter of different thinkers talking past one another. Even the semantic argument about which one of these accounts best fits what ordinary speakers mean when they use the term is a matter of relatively limited interest. The question of which of these kinds of freedom is necessary for moral responsibility, however, is an extremely interesting question.

To see why it matters whether people are ever morally responsible for their actions, think for a moment about criminal punishment. The idea that at least some criminals deserve to be punished only seems to make sense if those criminals are morally responsible for their crimes.

The philosopher Derk Pereboom, a skeptic about free will, has argued that we can justify punishing violent criminals even if we don’t believe them to be responsible for their crimes. He uses the analogy of quarantining plague victims. It’s important to isolate them from the general population for the sake of public safety even though they don’t “deserve” to be locked up.

The problem with this line of thought is that it doesn’t seem to be capable of making sense of some of the most important modern ideas about how criminal justice systems should work. Consider Blackstone’s maxim that it is better for 10 guilty persons to go free than for one innocent person to be sent to prison. This is the moral calculation built into the “innocent until proven guilty” standard. But would we apply a parallel standard of evidence to quarantining plague victims? It’s hard to imagine a public health official reasoning that it’s better for 10 plague-ridden individuals to go around spreading the disease than for one uninfected person to be placed in quarantine. The idea that criminal punishment isn’t like this—that it is categorically wrong to punish the innocent—seems to rely upon a moral distinction that disappears when we say that no one is responsible for their actions.

Frankfurt and Fischer

Even if we (a) accept that we live in a deterministic universe and (b) think that it’s implausible that no one is ever responsible for their actions, it is still possible to reject compatibilism. After all, if it’s literally impossible for individual P to take option B, given all the previous links in the relevant chains of cause and effect, it might seem obviously wrong to say that P “was free to” do B.

This line of thought has led compatibilist philosophers like Harry Frankfurt and John Martin Fischer to slice up their conceptual categories in a more cautious way. Frankfurt and Fischer are willing to concede the semantic issue and grant that if determinism is true, we can’t have free will understood as the freedom to do otherwise. They argue, however, that in a completely deterministic world, we’re still free to exercise the kind of control necessary to be morally responsible.

In a famous paper, Frankfurt defends this distinction with a hypothetical example. His original example has spawned a whole literature in which different philosophers have used similar examples—generally called “Frankfurt cases”—to debate his ideas. One of my favorite of these “Frankfurt cases,” suggested by Joshua Spencer, a philosopher who agrees with Frankfurt and Fischer’s version of compatibilism, takes the classic Grandfather Paradox for time travelers and turns it on its head.

Suppose that Martin is a time traveler; he travels in a machine that can transport him to various points in earth’s history. During one of his many trips, Martin rescued a man from plummeting to his death. Let us suppose the man rescued was a high-wire walker who was working without a net in a very desolate area with no one nearby. Martin arrived in his time machine just in time to see the man fall from his wire, head first toward the ground. Luckily, Martin quickly found a button labeled “Emergency Safety Net Release.” Martin pressed the button and an emergency safety net was deployed across the field underneath the high-wire walker. The walker landed safely in the net and walked away from the situation unscathed. If Martin had not pushed the button and released the emergency safety net, then the high-wire walker would have fallen to his death.

As it turns out, this high-wire walker was Martin’s grandfather at a very young age. At the time of his fall, Martin’s high-wire walking grandfather had not yet met Martin’s grandmother and he had not done anything that would have preserved his gametes for posterity. So, since Martin’s grandfather would have died without any progeny, it is clear that (1) if Martin had not released the emergency safety net, then Martin would never have existed. But, of course, it’s not possible for Martin to do anything if he never exists. In particular, (2) it’s not possible for Martin to do otherwise than release the emergency safety net if he never exists.

Despite the fact that Martin wasn’t free to do otherwise, Spencer thinks, Martin seems to deserve our praise for saving this man (especially since he didn’t know the high-wire walker was his grandfather). Martin would not deserve praise had he depressed the button by stepping on it without realising, even though the outcome would be the same. The difference is that, in the scenario Spencer described, Martin was in control—even though he wasn’t free to do otherwise.

John Martin Fischer explains this distinction as the difference between “regulative control” and “guidance control.” He asks us to imagine two scenarios. In the first, you’re guiding a car that’s functioning properly. You turn the steering wheel to the right and the car turns right. Had you turned it to the left, the car would have turned left. In the second scenario, you’re turning right in exactly the same way. Nothing about the cause-and-effect relationship between the way you turn the wheel and the way the car moves is different in this second scenario. However, this time, the car is malfunctioning such that it can’t turn left. Perhaps the steering wheel would jam if you tried to turn left. In the first scenario (but not the second), you’re exercising “regulative control” over the direction of the car. In both scenarios, though, you’re exercising “guidance control.”

Fischer’s idea is that, even in a deterministic world where we aren’t free to do otherwise, we have “guidance control” over our actions just so long as we’re appropriately ‘reasons-responsive’—that is to say, we understand reasons for and against possible courses of action and we’re at least somewhat moved by such reasons. Building on Fischer’s idea, Ryan Lake argues in his doctoral dissertation, No Fate But What We Make: A Defense of the Compatibility of Freedom and Causal Determinism, that the reasons that move us must be our reasons in order for us to be exercising the guidance control necessary for moral responsibility.

To get a better sense of Lake’s idea here, think about property rights. If I find a precious stone on a beach that no one has laid claim to, it’s fine for me to take possession of it. If I find the same kind of stone in a friend’s pocket, it would be wrong of me to take it without asking. In both cases, the stone comes from outside of me. I didn’t make it. The difference is that in the first case, I’m the only person with a claim to it. Similarly, if the mindless operation of natural laws playing out through a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors results in my weighing the pros and cons of a possible course of action in a certain way and coming to a particular decision, the reasons that motivated me are my reasons. If a mad scientist’s chip in my head brings about the same result, they are not. In both cases, my decision is determined by factors outside of me, but only in the first case do I have a unique “claim” on my reasoning.

Conclusion

These are obviously complex ideas about which there’s room for reasonable people to disagree. I don’t claim that anything I’ve written here constitutes a decisive defence of compatibilism. But I hope to have shown that compatibilism is at least plausible and that it deserves to be taken into consideration. We can’t have a complete conversation about whether to reject determinism in favor of betting on the existence of free will (as Edwards wants us to) or reject the existence of free will in the name of determinism (as Coyne wants us to) without at least seriously considering the possibility that this if a false dilemma.

 

Ben Burgis is the author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left, which is available for pre-order from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He’s also a regular on The Michael Brooks Show on Tuesday nights and he releases videos every Monday for the Zero Books YouTube channel. You can follow him on Twitter @benburgis

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89 Comments

  1. Baptiste Mossé says

    The problem of Free Will and the problem of moral responsibility should be disentangled. That’s the only way to go if you don’t want to leave the latter – an important practical matter – at the mercy of the former – an interesting but abstract question.

    Psychopaths in particular are an interesting case. Scientists agree that psychopathy in partly innate, it has physiological causes, psychopaths don’t care about right or wrong, yet they are clearly able to think clearly and understand the consequences of their actions. To what extent are psychopaths morally responsible when they commit crimes? (some don’t)

    • Farris says

      @Baptiste

      Please explain how psychopaths are relevant to the conversation. Psychopaths suffer the same fate as moral defectives. Both must be locked away from those in society making moral (ie. correct) judgements. In other words person deemed incapable or unwilling to make moral judgments are considered unfit to live amongst those who do make moral judgments. Furthermore, isn’t the decision to lock away those unwilling or incapable of making moral judgments, evidence of a collective determination made by society. Finally some societies permit morally aberrant behavior when it is deemed a benefit to the society as a whole. This is the precise determination made by societies sponsoring terrorism. Deterministic is not as accurate term as fatalistic. If some chose to believe that mystical fates have predetermined their destinies, such is a choice they are free to make.

      • Andras Kovacs says

        psychopaths […] must be locked away from those in society making moral (ie. correct) judgements”

        Physical locking away isn’t necessary: it is enough if psychopaths are identified & prevented from gaining any position of political power over their fellows. For example they’re banned from running for political office (but still can vote).

      • Baptiste Mossé says

        My point was that moral responsibility should not be tied to Free Will.

        The author says “The problem with this line of thought is that it doesn’t seem to be capable of making sense of some of the most important modern ideas about how criminal justice systems should work” but that’s not how it works. This looks like a moralistic fallacy to me. If our “modern ideas” of criminal justice are incompatible with the inexistence of FW then they should be revised.

    • Douglas McMillan Thomas says

      Perfect. Beautiful. I would not change one word.
      And I could write paragraphs of eloquent bullshit. Believe me.

      It’s been an age since I heard the subject of Free Will discussed like that.
      A great professor of mine who’d been a friend of C.S.Lewis. So long ago.

      Thank you.

  2. Andras Kovacs says

    To what extent are psychopaths morally responsible when they commit crimes?

    To the extent they wouldn’t want those crimes committed against themselves. If they avoid getting into a particular situation then with such behaviour they give explicit acknowledgement that them putting someone else into that situation is wrong. Of course they’ll vehemently deny this, but their behaviour betrays them.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yes. Besides, the notion of “a deterministic universe” is too akin to religion. We know we can make choices, even if many of our choices have been instilled in our minds by advertising, religion, laws, social pressure etc.

  3. Andrew Scott says

    At the moment of the big bang – even before it – an inevitable series of physical, molecular, and chemical reactions began which inevitably led to the arrangement of words in this blog post appearing on a website. It only feels like free will.

    Nonsense. No rational person should take that seriously.

    • Andras Kovacs says

      At the moment of the big bang – even before it – an inevitable series of physical, molecular, and chemical reactions began which inevitably led to the arrangement of words in this blog post appearing on a website.

      You jest, but the infinite variety of the Mandelbrot set is contained in a generator function of a few computer instructions. One just have to feed back the results into the formula: the # of iterations done before the recursive result “blows up” determines the colour of the pixel of the set. But all of that information generated comes from the very short generator function and the X and Y coordinates of the pixel under calculation.

      • David of Kirkland says

        Give me a choice between A and B. I use a random generator to inform me which way to go. How can that be deterministic?

        • Andras Kovacs says

          I use a random generator

          As John von Neumann pithily observed:

          Any one who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin. For, as has been pointed out several times, there is no such thing as a random number—there are only methods to produce random numbers.

          Besides: in the case you described, it isn’t your mind which generates the decision, but rather the tossed coin.

  4. Surface Reflection says

    Neither the neuroscience or the physical science confirm exactly how our brains work or that the universe is deterministic. So any assumptions based on such false assumptions are nonsense.

    What we do empirically know about how the Universe works is that deterministic events can only be observed if we look into the past events. The future is probabilistic – all the way down. And back up. From Quantum to Macro.

    Our wills, to the best of our actual scientific empirical knowledge and common sense are neither absolutely free from the Universe – which is an absurd idea in on itself, nor are they pre-determined, which is an equally absurd and completely nonsensical idea that has not a shred of evidence of any kind – AT ALL.

    All of us experience every single day various conditions and events that influence us and even force us to behave in certain ways – many of which make perfect sense, as getting something to eat, being “forced” to breathe air or saving our children from various dangers is, but we also experience similar events where we can always choose between different options – even those bad for ourselves. As we all very well know people are generally not very good at maintaining some epic level of personal freedom, as many of us succumb to various influences – from ridiculous and absurd ones, to marketing propaganda, to media clickbait, to much more personal matters and demands – daily.

    The fact we exist in the physical nature, laws and principles of the Universe cannot and doesn’t mean we are somehow “not free” to some extent. or that “all our decisions are predetermined” as some absurd incoherent ridiculous “thinkers” claim. What we actually have is varying degrees of freedom in the physical Universe we exist in. In fact our degrees of “freedom” come from those various physical limits – which is what creates different options we can choose between and so – exercise some amount of degrees of free will. Without such limitations – there would be nothing to choose between and in fact there would be no Universe or living beings at all.

    The idea of compatibility with “determinism” is nonsensical – because there is no such determinism at all. The Universe does not work that way. Nor are our wills free in such absurd extreme way.

    The actual Science and all of data we have is against that.

    • It is true that most interpretations of quantum physics are probalistic but it is absolutely not the case that reality is necessarily probabilistic. There are at least two other possibilities. There is the many worlds interpretation arguably equivalent to the probabilistic interpretation if none of the worlds can ever inteact (and deeply unsatisfying). More significantly nothing in quantum physics prevents a hidden variable model where what appears to be probabalistic is actually a lack of knowledge of the complete state of the universe. Bell’s inequalities disproved the idea of local hidden variables but non-local hidden variables are completely fine and given quantum physics is inherently non-local there is nothing wrong with this. Personally I find the later model much more likely as it is obvious from things such as the renormalisation problem, the regularity in the standard model, and the incompatibility between QFT and gravity that there is a level ‘below’ current physics even if we don’t know what it is. Given that, there must be state information we don’t know about so the apparent probabilistic nature of physics is unsurprising and no need to postulate an essentially probabilistic universe.

      • Surface Reflection says

        I appreciate your effort but:

        Reality is definitely probabilistic into the future, completely determined backwards in time.
        Macro reality is also probabilistic forward in time – and we do know this definitely.
        One of the best examples is a Three Body problem.

        Many worlds interpretation is unfalsifiable nonsense, for all the respect and love i have for David Deutch. I may as well claim many bananas in other dimensions could be the secret sauce. Its irrelevant at best. And – it would bring further absurdity and nonsense, because there is no end to it. It may seem like a clever idea at surface (ahem) but as soon as you start really thinking about it it veers off into absolute absurdity. Which cannot be confirmed or denied in any way.

        A “hidden variable” is absurd argument from ignorance fallacy. Completely and utterly irrelevant to actual science and scientific method.

        There surely are further levels of reality we dont know about right now, (as there are many limits we cannot peer behind, even theoretically for now, such as big bang, speed of light, absolute zero etc) but that does not and cannot mean those would automatically confirm absolute determinism. Making claims like that isnt even a hypothesis, its ludicrous nonsense and absurd failure of logic. You or anyone else cannot claim there might be something we have no idea about, not even if it really exists – and then claim that proves anything.

        Contrary to such ludicrous absurdities, what we do definitely know about reality shows that the Universe is probabilistic, emergent fractal and that determinism is only a part of that grander structure.

        Ive just seen a very good article about “incompatibility” between QFT and Gravity or General Relativity, (or is it special relativity in that case?) which takes a different angle in viewing that problem and so far it seems to be holding up.
        https://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082v1.pdf
        https://www.wired.com/story/quantum-darwinism-could-be-what-makes-reality-real/

        What i despize the most about this whole argument is that its not about actual science and things we know and can experience every single day, but that is an argument between two opposite binary extremes. religion on one side and extreme materialist atheists on the other.
        Neither has any ownership over science and reality. And both deny and refuse to even acknowledge different empirically proven facts as it fits their agenda.

        • Andras Kovacs says

          the Universe is probabilistic, emergent fractal and that determinism is only a part of that grander structure

          Almost. The Universe is an emergent fractal which seems probabilistic to the human observer*; determinism — causality — is (definitionally essential) part of the generator function of that grander structure.

          which human observer is a part of the emergent fractal which is the Universe

          • Surface Reflection says

            “which seems probabilistic to the human observer*”

            There is no empirical proof or fact that even hints at that. And all of the relevant science discoveries show the opposite.

            As such, those kinds of subjective empty anti-scientific assertions are as worthless and pointless as any other based on denial of actual science and ignorance.

        • @Surface Reflection

          Your response to my post suggesting that reality is not necessarily probabilistic is full of non-sequitors and misunderstandings.

          The three body problem says nothing about whether the universe is probabilistic or not in fact it is posed as an explicitly deterministic problem. The salient feature of the the three body problem is that there is no closed from solution that says nothing about probabilistic nature or not.

          The good paper on QFT and gravity you cite is actually not on this subject but on the measurement problem.

          Overall you seem to confuse the idea of inherent probabilistic reality with a lack of knowledge of the full state and hence final state of systems. This is quite diffferent and if this was probabilistic then so woudl be classical non-quantum physics. The point of the probabilistic interpretation of quantum physics is that even if you had complete knowledge of the initial state the final state can still only be known probabilistically.

          My point is not that either view is corect; probabilistic, versus deterministic. My point is that either could be true and that the question is not settled.

          • Surface Reflection says

            Well, i guess its not completely settled but the majority of actual empirical evidence shows that the universe is probabilistic, and to deny it you need to imagine unknown laws and principles. The rest of your post are false accusations and incoherent proclamations based on your failure to understand the meaning of what i said to you. The Three body problem is a direct evidence of how starting seemingly deterministic conditions create unpredictable randomness and so break the determinism on a macro scale.

            Its not a matter of “calculating more” but it shows you cannot calculate such processes and achieve a deterministic exact answer or solution. Only probabilities.

            Your claim that the article i linked is “not on this subject” is simply ludicrous, as that theory directly shows how underlying probabilistic events create stability and deterministic events – which are thus limited. And so, not absolute.

            I could leave you another link, even conveniently time tagged:
            https://youtu.be/zNVQfWC_evg?t=1278

            But whats the point really?
            Youre just going to proclaim its a non-sequitor and or not relevant. lol.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Even breathing is something we control. I can just naturally breath, but I can also hyperventilate, hold my breath, do meditative breathing, but apparently some would suggest that any of these I choose to do now was pre-determined is as close to religion/god as it comes.

  5. Surface Reflection says

    To add, this common sense view which is actually supported by Science empirical data and our everyday experiences and lives supports the idea of personal responsibility for our actions.

    Because we have degrees of freedom – within reality as we know it – and we can choose what to do to reasonable extents – is the reason why we have personal responsibility for our actions.

    To reasonable extent means the obvious. In case of serious threat to my life and lives of my family or loved ones – i am in the right to defend myself or others. While if i am the one threatening others they have the right to defend themselves. Similarly, i can choose to go out and rape – or not, kill, maim, rob, steal, set fire to – or not, and the consequences of that choice i have are my responsibility.

    No impossible time traveling machines and absurd paradoxes needed.
    Or ludicrous anti scientific proclamations about “our brains making choices for us”.

    • Klaus C. says

      You’re confusing “determinism” with the ability to predict events. In modern usage, a deterministic system is one in which its ongoing development is determined by chains of cause and effect, regardless of whether this is predictable in nature.

      Chaos theory shows us many deterministic systems that give rise to all kinds of creative and complex states of order that in turn introduce outcomes that can’t be predicted from the beginning. Human “will” operates in the same way – it’s the result of a genetically determined recipe that gave rise to a powerful central nervous system that in turn brings much unpredictable order into being, while its own development is further shaped by all kinds of environmental factors. All of these factors – genes, environment, creative brain – function deterministically.

      • Surface Reflection says

        Im not confusing anything and you certainly dont get to proclaim any of it just because you got triggered by your own inability to understand what I am saying, and your own further distortion and translation of that into some nonsense of your own..

        Of course the Chaos theory shows us that. Determinism is a part of reality. A part.
        The problem some people have is then assuming all of reality is pre determined. Which is nonsense and motivated by three hundred years old and behind the times arguments between religion and materialists. Two blind limited extreme binary sides.

        And no, the genes, environment and the “creative brain” do not function completely determinsitically. No mere recipe is enough for the meal to turn out great or even edible. You need to actually make it, you need a good cook and he needs to careful to create the meal. And thats just a simple dish.

        The genes are not all there is to our biology, we dont have complete recipes for our whole bodies and every feature of them in genes themselves. Many of our main organs only get into the shapes, places and forms they have when they start to grow and mechanically encounter other parts of our bodies. The environment shapes the genes and selects for some, chooses which get expressed or not, while our own experiences during one life time can become a part of our DNA through epigenetic changes. Then you have the whole microbiome without which we couldnt survive or actually exist at all. And that too influences us, and we influence it back, as well all of it being influenced by environment – which we influence back.
        Multiple force feedback loops continuously influencing and affecting each other.

        That whole situation is much, much, much more complex then just “hey its all in the dna!”
        It isnt. Science proves it.

        Furthermore – the abilities we gained, caused and created by many direct causal forces and many random chances and lucky breaks – such as our language is, affect and influence the specific development of our biology. That is the reason why we have parts of our brains that literally think in words. Just a part though. There is much more to it all.

        Our consciousness is an emergent virtual space in which our minds operate. Also virtual, immaterial and completely real. To people who cannot surmount their “tendency to think in binary extremes” that automatically means some nonsense about supernatural this or that – but thats not true. Our biology is a foundation that creates the emergent fractal virtual space of our consciousness and other abilities then grow and evolve in that virtual environment.
        Which is the reason why none of those specific abilities can be found in the biological hardware itself. As actual science confirms over and over.

        The computers and all they can produce is a good extremely simplified example of such a process. So thats why, in that simplified example, you cannot find the Millenium Falcon in the hardware of your computer no matter how far you dissect it and what you can measure in it.
        And thats just an ordinary computer creating this whole virtual environment out of mere ones and zeros.

        Try to imagine then what a biological living being creates, fueled by our whole bodies immersed in reality, made out of reality itself – not just our brains alone as if those operate in a vacuum.

        We dont just comprehend reality with our so called rational minds. We feel it too.
        What we call emotions is the earliest interface with reality and ability to understand reality with living beings on this planet developed, billions of years before any kind of brain came about.

        • Klaus C. says

          “Many of our main organs only get into the shapes, places and forms they have when they start to grow and mechanically encounter other parts of our bodies. The environment shapes the genes and selects for some, chooses which get expressed or not, while our own experiences during one life time can become a part of our DNA through epigenetic changes. Then you have the whole microbiome without which we couldnt survive or actually exist at all. And that too influences us, and we influence it back, as well all of it being influenced by environment – which we influence back.”

          And everything going on there is deterministic in nature. You’re describing deterministic interaction involving complex systems.

          You seem to think that portraying complex determinism as complex somehow makes it less deterministic, which is quite laughable.

          • Surface Reflection says

            No, the only thing that is laughable is your ignorance, inability to understand what is said to you and idea that you can win something by making empty proclamations you cannot explain.

            As well as failing to understand your own words make your assumptions about it quite pointless.

            “Chaos theory shows us many deterministic systems that give rise to all kinds of creative and complex states of order that in turn introduce outcomes that can’t be predicted from the beginning. ”

            So… how is that completely deterministic?
            And how is that then – “states of order”?

            You are confused and limited so you cant understand your own confusion and limited cognitive abilities. What i said shows that your previous assertions about “genetic recipes” do not work they way you claimed. Your answer is just an attempt to avoid addressing that and claim more vacuous inane nonsense. Which you refute yourself. That is actually laughable and not just because i said so.

        • molinas says

          It’s funny that you pretty much brought up all the arguments against free will, and yet you yourself is still not convinced. Calling peoples names, being arrogant and condescending.
          You are correct to point out that the brain is like an extremely complex computer. The brain is a pattern recognition machine that takes in inputs and produces an action (choice) as output. The brain was formed by prior experiences, genetic factors, and other environmental conditions. Add to that randomness, and there is no free will there.

          “Or ludicrous anti scientific proclamations about “our brains making choices for us”.”
          So if the brain is constructed from atoms, neural connections formed by experiences, genetics and environmental exposure, who is making the choice? How? As a matter of fact you will find the self is an illusion as well and there is no one there, you don’t even exist.

          Where does consciousness come from if not a product of the brain? My conscious experience is different than yours because we have different brains.

          Where do thoughts come from? Can you think what your next thought will be? It just appears out of thin air. What will you have for dinner tonight? Simple choice… Italian or Mexican.
          You can say I had Mexican last night so today I will have Italian, but you can not explain why that was your explanation. You could have said that last night you had Mexican and it was so good that you will have it again tonight. In that moment of time the urge to have Mexican just was greater, it felt like a choice but it really wasn’t.

          • Surface Reflection says

            “It’s funny that you pretty much brought up all the arguments against free will,”

            Only in hallucinations of your broken mind, in which you make an empty assertion and it magically becomes true, which is not funny at all.

            “Calling peoples names, being arrogant and condescending.”
            Never fail to claim ad hominem, because that also becomes magically true the second it leaves your mouth.

            “You are correct to point out that the brain is like an extremely complex computer.”

            Thats the direct opposite of what i claim. Do you actually have anything to say that isnt a broken assertion you hallucinate about?

            “The brain is a pattern recognition machine that takes in inputs and produces an action (choice) as output. ”

            lol. Might wanna try getting out of 18th century.

            “Add to that randomness, and there is no free will there.”

            lol wut?
            Besides that ludicrous assertion, im not arguing for “free will” at all. Im arguing that the concept of “free will” and ” no free will at all” are nonsensical absurd binary extremes.

            “So if the brain is constructed from atoms, neural connections formed by experiences, genetics and environmental exposure, who is making the choice? How? As a matter of fact you will find the self is an illusion as well and there is no one there, you don’t even exist.
            Where does consciousness come from if not a product of the brain? My conscious experience is different than yours because we have different brains.”

            I dont even exist? Gee, what a surprise hahaha.
            And yet, your conscious experience is different then mine because we have … different brains? That… dont exist?

            I would ask can you even comprehend what absurd self destructing mutually exclusive nonsense you are claiming, but its obvious you dont.

            And who said that the consciousness is not the product of the brain?

    • molinas says

      @Surface Reflection

      Let’s see how broken my mind really is and verify my empty assertions:

      "The genes are not all there is to our biology, we dont have complete recipes for our whole bodies and every feature of them in genes themselves. Many of our main organs only get into the shapes, places and forms they have when they start to grow and mechanically encounter other parts of our bodies. The environment shapes the genes and selects for some, chooses which get expressed or not, while our own experiences during one life time can become a part of our DNA through epigenetic changes. Then you have the whole microbiome without which we couldnt survive or actually exist at all. And that too influences us, and we influence it back, as well all of it being influenced by environment – which we influence back.

      Multiple force feedback loops continuously influencing and affecting each other.”
      Where in this story you exercise free will? At which step do you consciously influence reality? How are you influencing reality? A bunch of name calling but in none of your posts do you address that. Where do your thoughts come from? Why do you desire one thing or another in that specific time? Do you really have control over that?

      “The computers and all they can produce is a good extremely simplified example of such a process…
      Try to imagine then what a biological living being creates, fueled by our whole bodies immersed in reality, made out of reality itself – not just our brains alone as if those operate in a vacuum.”
      Since you already mentioned that the computer is a simplified version, wouldn’t that just mean that the brain is a complex computer?

      “lol. Might wanna try getting out of 18th century.”
      Care to enlighten me?

      “Never fail to claim ad hominem, because that also becomes magically true the second it leaves your mouth.”
      I probably just made this stuff up, I assure they are not from your replies on this tread:

      “Only in hallucinations of your broken mind, in which you make an empty assertion”
      “No, the only thing that is laughable is your ignorance, inability to understand what is said to you and idea that you can win something by making empty proclamations you cannot explain.
      Only in hallucinations of your broken mind”
      “I do agree that broken simpletons produce absurd inanities and incoherent brain farts”
      “Which in your case, came from some pathological problem of your failing mind”
      “Not surprising, seeing what limited mind you have. It seems a few strawmans and ridiculous ignorance about actual science and reality is your pinnacle. Im guessing it may convince another limited simpleton you are somehow right”

      • Surface Reflection says

        Not a problem to answer, im just not sure you will understand or accept it.

        You ask:
        “Where in this story you exercise free will? At which step do you consciously influence reality? How are you influencing reality?”

        But what i said above your question does not claim I can exercise my “free will” and consciously influence genetic and evolutionary processes as if i have some ridiculous fantastic “mind power” – thats something you injected because you misunderstand what i am saying in some extreme ways. Of course i cant directly influence my genes “with my thoughts” or whatever you imagined there.

        And more importantly – i do not agree with ridiculous assertions that we have absolute free will that is somehow separate from physical reality. Try to get that at least. However confusing it may seem to you now because you already assume thats my angle. It isnt.

        What we have are varying degrees of freedom within limits and constraints of the Universe, which are actually different from person to person and from situation to situation. None of it is some nonsensical absolute. Sometimes we have more freedom, sometimes less and sometimes it makes no sense to force “freedom” from specific circumstances.
        Like for example, when you see you kid running after a ball onto the street and in front of a coming car. It makes no sense to try and exercise the “freedom” from what the situation demands from you, just like it makes no sense if you force yourself to stop breathing, eating or drinking just to prove the point.

        Equally, none of that or any other example you can mention – mean that our actions are pre-determined and completely absolutely controlled by the Universe and physical laws and constraints of reality. It is those very limits and constraints that give us various options to choose from. That literally create us.

        But since Humans suffer from “Tendency to think in binary extremes” which we are not actively aware of – at least for now the majority of humans dont notice they fall into that trap.
        So… we have this argument between tow equally absurd binary extremes.
        And neither is the answer.

        Now, that said, while i cant consciously influence my genes “with my thoughts” – i sure can influence them indirectly, by the way i live – which will influence and change the very life i lead, events i experience and situations i get into and all of that will affect my genes through epigenetic changes, some of which will become a part of my DNA and so transfer to my progeny. This has been going on ever since we existed, not just as humans but as living beings or organisms.

        I can also, for a more silly but not any less real example, decide i will do extreme amounts of sun bathing, or eat horrible carcinogenic food, even drink heavily when im too young and under age… all of that will surely change my DNA.

        The you have the microbiome, without which you cannot exist – which is not a part of our DNA at all and it can influence you in all sorts of ways, biologically and psychologically. All of that will have consequences of its own. In other words, the situation is very, very complex. And complexity creates probabilities.
        Not certainties.

        Also, that was a reply to another poster who made ignorant assertions about how our genes work and how im confused about determinism because im supposedly mixing it with deterministic processes in nature… which he pulled out of his bloated behind and only projected his own confusion and misunderstanding.

        “Care to enlighten me?”
        Im not sure whats the word count for a single post so ill be brief. The ridiculous idea that we are machines started after Newtons discoveries which were hijacked from him and turned into that ludicrous nonsense. He never said or believed any such nonsense. Might wanna check that whole deal further on your own.

        As to the rest, its not an ad hominem when its true and all those i castigated cant fail but prove all of it repeatedly. Then its just a sad fact. And i never claimed your and other replies are not correct because of those “character flaws” either. Which is what constitutes and ad hominem fallacy. Those replies veer from not correct to absurd and ludicrous on their very own.

        • molinas says

          @Surface Reflection

          I appreciate you taking the time to reply in a thoughtful way. I will take your points and ponder on them. There are some truths, but I think this whole discussion would need to start over and lay out some ground for definitions, what are we arguing for and against… which would definitely lead to a more productive discussion and not talking in parallel.
          Maybe we get to sit next to each other on a plane going somewhere.

  6. Peter from Oz says

    ”Science empirical data ”
    I appreciate that these days we want to make sure that the corpse of the old superstitious thinking is truly dead. However, I can’t help thinking that the way some people fetishise something they call ”science” is really akin to a new kind of superstition. When I see locutions like ”Science empirical data,” where at lease one if not two of the words are totally redundant, I sniff the scent of this new superstition.
    Facts are facts. Gravity is a fact. Scientists may have used scientific method to explain gravity, but gravity is no longer ”science”.

    • Surface Reflection says

      Isnt it nice just making proclamations you are not required to explain? It feels so pleasing to just wish something into reality. Pure magic.

      Scientific empirical data is a new superstition now?

      In what asylum or alternate reality ruled by inquisition or some other religious cabal exactly?

      “but gravity is no longer ”science”.”

      lol wut?

      • Peter from Oz says

        One wonders whether you’ve had much education. Complex ideas and definitions seem to be difficult for you.
        ”Scientific empirical data ” is a redundant enough, but ”science empirical data” is even worse. The use of such bloated neologisms is a sign of people trying hard to use the language to justify a fetishisation for science, without understanding what facts actually are.
        Gravity is something that weall know exists. We need no scientific knowledge to understand the concept. We accept it because we have been told by others that it exists. The ”science” was in working out how it existed and explainign how it exists. Gravity itself would be there whether a scientist could explian it or not. So gravity itself is not science.
        This is not really an epistemological question, so much as question of English usage and logic. Like a lot of people of simpler understanding you misunderstand the difference between gravity the thing and the theory of gravity. The latter is a scientific theory or ”the science” as people insist on calling it. The former is just a fact or thing.

        • Surface Reflection says

          I do agree that broken simpletons produce absurd inanities and incoherent brain farts, such as pointless meandering objections to use of everyday terms, which serve no purpose or have any conclusion, except making broken simpletons feel some measure of solipsistic self satisfaction.

          Another great example of that psychological self destruction is inventing the issue of some kind of dichotomy between scientific explanations and confirmation of natural processes – and those natural processes themselves. As if – science or anyone else claims that gravity doesnt exist…

          Which in your case, came from some pathological problem of your failing mind.

          “We need no scientific knowledge to understand the concept. ”

          Umm, yes we do. Without science you would have no idea what is actually going on, nor have the term gravity to use, just like humanity had no correct idea about this fundamental force before Newton proved and described it in greater detail.

          “We accept it because we have been told by others that it exists.”

          Thats a great way to lead your life.

          “Like a lot of people of simpler understanding you misunderstand the difference between gravity the thing and the theory of gravity.”

          Lol.

  7. mirrormere says

    Edwards made the comment: “Godel’s incompleteness theorems indicate that there are truths about numbers that cannot be proven through calculation or computation.” However, the consequences of Gödel’s theorems go much, much deeper than that and shake the very foundations of reason and logic. Gödel proved that no axiom can be proven – that we have to take them on faith; to believe them to be true without proof – and this includes all axioms upon which math, science and philosophy are built.

    The question now becomes – how do we devise our axioms? The only answer is that we intuit them. This shows that our minds operate outside of the system of logic we have developed that informs our sciences and philosophies, strongly indicating that there might be something about our consciousness that exists beyond the physical, material world and could therefore grant us free will.

    Coyne quotes Carroll as pointing out, assessing competing theories of consciousness, that . . . by conventional scientific measures, the idea that known physics will be able to account for the brain is enormously far in the lead. But this could also indicate that we are actually running out of explanations provided by known physics because we still haven’t a clue as to what consciousness is. In other words – physics is finite and there is a possibility that consciousness is not because consciousness invented physics.

    For more information about Gödel’s theorems (and related work by Cantor, Boltzmann and Turing), I highly recommend https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/dangerous-knowledge/ (there are two parts on one page – watch both).

    • Surface Reflection says

      Someone said something – so we all should completely throw away every bit of knowledge we ever achieved!

      Godel, and you – would be surprised how resistant to “exists because of belief” a good kick in the ass is.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Surface Reflection

        “so we all should completely throw away every bit of knowledge we ever achieved!”

        Sorry but you completely miss the point. Godel merely demonstrated that axioms cannot prove themselves. He did not say they should be thrown away or that they are less true than we had thought. On the contrary he shows that some things that are certainly true cannot be proven. This is not a diminution of truth, it is a diminution of proof. IOW proof, where it is available, is as robust as it ever was, nevertheless some true things can’t be proven. No one is suggesting throwing away anything.

        • Surface Reflection says

          Godel demonstrated something? How? He showed things cannot be proven? How did he show it?
          Did he maybe… prove his assertions in some way? 🙂
          Can you prove any of that ?
          I would love to see it.

          btw, once you start proclaiming such absurd nonsense as you and Godel did, then logically there is no truth anymore except that in which someone believes.

          But feel free to prove me wrong.
          I triple dare ya to prove it. 🙂

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Surface Reflection

            The proof is complex, you’d have to do your own studying I’m afraid. But since you do not know the proof, how do you know it is absurd? You say it is absurd without knowing it, and while misunderstanding what it claims. Godel does not say there is no truth anymore, he rather says that things that are true might not be provable. See the difference?

          • Surface Reflection says

            It seems i cant reply further so:

            “The proof is complex, you’d have to do your own studying I’m afraid. But since you do not know the proof, how do you know it is absurd? You say it is absurd without knowing it, and while misunderstanding what it claims. Godel does not say there is no truth anymore, he rather says that things that are true might not be provable. See the difference?”

            No, i dont see any difference.
            Just repetition of previous empty assertions – you or Godel cannot prove.

            Its not up to me to “study” anything either, what a laughable attempt.
            Its up to you to prove – how “things” cannot be proved – which is what you and Godel claim.

            And you spectacularly failed to do so.

          • mirrormere says

            @Surface Reflection

            He didn’t show that “things” cannot be proven but that axioms cannot be proven. It’s clear you do not understand the difference. If you would like to receive some enlightenment on the subject, review the definition of axiom as per dictionary.com (definition #3 is particularly relevant).

            And try the documentary I listed above which gives a layman’s explanation of Gödel’s theorems and perhaps this might help: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/goedel-incompleteness/

            Note: it may also be of assistance to remove the shiny foil cap from your head beforehand.

    • Godel’s incompleteness theorems only apply to formal systems. It is the closed nature of such systems that leads to them being incomplete. While it is a popular game to apply incompleteness to open systems, it is completely without merit. At most, doing so might be a source of inspiration and further work but to claim that such and such holds because of Incompleteness is a big mistake.

  8. Klaus C. says

    Much time is wasted trying to find some “escape clause” from determinism in these debates. But the only alternative is randomness, which is incompatible with the idea of “will”.

    So in regard to “moral responsibility”, the important distinction in human behaviour seems to be: the difference between those who unthinkingly act in accord with their predetermined nature, and those who subject their nature to another level of determinism, at a conscious level, in which the constraints at work at are ethical principles of some kind. At no stage is any “freedom from determinism” involved – the greater conscious agency of the second group is also deterministic in nature.

    This of course suggests that it is actually in the predetermined nature of the second group to subject their urges etc to the conscious deterministic filter provided by ethical principles, and this is of course true to some extent.

    But what is also true is that this is a very common human characteristic, which is why indeed we have such things as laws and rules that seek to oblige people in general to behave in ethically defensible ways.

    We know that turning the typically self-centred behaviour of young children into socially compatible behaviour can take a lot of hard work, persuading them to consider the rights and feelings of others. And we know in our own lives that our “best intentions” are sometimes sabotaged by regrettable lapses.

    So it’s clear that we’re talking about determinism at work on two different levels: that of our underlying nature, uncritically indulged, and that of the conscious mind, deliberately thinking in ways constrained by ethical criteria.

    To talk of the latter agency as “free will”, rather than “ethical will” is to deny its deterministic nature on the same two levels: to deny that it’s in our nature to pursue conscious ethical thinking, and to deny that such thinking provides us with another, more refined level of determinism.

    • Surface Reflection says

      “Much time is wasted trying to find some “escape clause” from determinism in these debates. But the only alternative is randomness, which is incompatible with the idea of “will”.”

      Both parts of this proclamations are utter nonsense which you cannot prove in any way, and so serve as a good example of psychological issues fueling your opinions about it. Instead of actual science and reason.

      As well as yet another quite funny example of binary thinking. Which is a general human fundamental fault.

      • Klaus C. says

        If you can suggest a meaningful alternative to determinism than isn’t merely randomness, feel free to try.

        But you might find it quite a bit more difficult than engaging in ad hominem.

        • Surface Reflection says

          Its not any kind of ad hominem. And your reply proves that. Its simply how you think, which is not unusual as majority of humanity suffers from that Fundamental fault, myself included as i am human as much as i would like to be able to claim different.

          You see, there is nothing else in reality for you except two binary opposites, complete absurd determinism OR equally absurd extreme of “randomness”.

          Yet, reality itself proves you wrong every single day. Whatever you can experience, study, test, and confirm empirically is neither of those two ridiculous absurd extremes.

          To your binary extreme mind that probably will automatically look as if im saying there is no determinism or randomness at all. If you experience such a reaction… you need to start paying attention to it.

          The determinsim and randomness are both parts of reality and neither is absolute, nor absurd extreme. In fact they cannot exist without each other. And although we can observe and experience extremes of each – those are rare – extremes.

          So, we can concoct some sort of completely deterministic system of one or two particles interacting with eachother in very specific constrained ways. But thats not what goes on in nature and reality. Even worse, we observe that kind of complete determinism only if we limit ourselves to specific features and limits of such interactions.

          What is an atom? What is a subatomic particle? What is a quark? How does that work, eh?
          Oh no, lets just focus on a single “atom” and just not acknowledge the underlying further layers of it all. Lets just talk about “matter” shall we?

          Macro scale? Easy. solve me the three body problem, any chaotic natural system, predict the lottery numbers (just PM please), tell me what was before the big bang, how the universe will “end”, whose going to win champions league next year or ten years from now, what color of eyes your grand, grand, grand son will have (not to mention other features) – whats “dark matter” and “dark energy”, where exactly will leafs from a tree next to your house fall? Do i need to list more?

          None of it is complete deterministic OR completely random.

          • Klaus C. says

            @ Surface

            You’re confusing real randomness (an apparent aspect of the quantum realm) with our inability to predict the future outcomes of complex deterministic interactions on a macroscopic scale.

            I’m hoping that at some level, you understand this, and are now just waffling to try to save face 🙂

          • Surface Reflection says

            “I’m hoping that at some level, you understand this, and are now just waffling to try to save face”

            Thats quite a hilarious projection.
            Not surprising, seeing what limited mind you have. It seems a few strawmans and ridiculous ignorance about actual science and reality is your pinnacle. Im guessing it may convince another limited simpleton you are somehow right, because thats the real level at which you operate. Enjoy that success as much as you can.

            “our inability to predict the future outcomes of complex deterministic interactions on a macroscopic scale.”

            Its not our inability, but fundamental issue that cannot be solved in that way.
            Any attempt to establish a clear causal chain of events in complex systems breaks down – because universe does not work in that limited constrained way your mind does.

            The deterministic causal interactions are limited. You seem to grasp a small part of it, yet cannot form further logical reasoning because it conflicts with limits of your capabilities and your bloated laughable ego.

            The “quantum realm” is not separated from the macro universe but actually creates it.
            And influences it.

            The macro realm itself is probabilistic and the determinism is only a small part of that, not all of it. There is no secret order we just have to discover by calculating more – because order becomes a small part of greater complexity that limited ignorant people like you call “chaos”.
            In objective reality there is no chaos or order, those are human concepts we try to force onto the universe – and fail.

            That is what actual science keeps proving over and over. Guess how valuable your incoherent self defeating assertions are compared to that.

  9. Yes, compatibilism is the best way of thinking about “free will” and indeed “moral responsibility”, so overall I agree with the author.

    But then, with the “Frankfurt cases” and such, and in typical philosophical style, he then way over-thinks the whole thing. There is no fact of the matter as to whether one “deserves punishment” or is “morally responsible”. These are value judgements that people make! We develop such notions as social constructs, enabling us to socially interact with each other.

    But it is wrong to then adopt the moral-realist idea that there must be facts of the matter underlying these concepts, and thus that there is a fact of the matter as to whether someone actually does “deserve punishment” that is distinct from whether other humans want to punish him.

  10. Eddie Marcia says

    A mediocrity like Jerry Coyne is apparently quite incapable of anything resembling deep reasoning. If we lived in a deterministic cosmos we couldn’t possibly know it. This is obviously true, except to those incapable of grasping the underlying reasons why. People like Coyne can account for anything and everything except themselves. Whatever intellectual scotoma bedevils Jerry and so many other high-IQ morons, it is apparently utterly incurable in some people (but by no means all).

    • defmn says

      I have no idea who Jerry Coyne is but your assertion that “If we lived in a deterministic cosmos we couldn’t possibly know it.” is exactly correct for reasons that anybody who can actually think does not need to have explained to them so thank you for pointing it out. I was going to stay out of this until I read what you wrote because the article is so off base the effort to correct it seemed more than it was worth.

      A couple of additional bread crumbs for those who can think.

      ‘Free will’ is a misnomer. The adjectives that are most descriptive of ‘will’ are ‘strong’ and ‘weak’. Try ‘free thought’ and see how much clearer the idea becomes.

      The author’s idea of compatibilism is born of an egalitarian view of human nature that is unsupportable. Strength of mind & will is measured by the extent to which an individual can escape the constraints of his time and place.

      Determinism is a corollary of Bacon’s/Hobbes rhetorical argument for “bodies in motion” which today is viewed as “matter in motion” as a truism of modern science’s explanation for all reality. If materialism or determinism are real try explaining to yourself how much matter and/or motion is involved in either idea and then read Plato until you understand his ‘ideas’. Once you have a clear understanding of that concept Aristotle’s categories required to know what something is will make more sense.

      That should keep anybody actually interested in this question busy for awhile but I would add that when questions exist for a long, long time without being resolved the likely answer is that the question is being asked incorrectly or that it isn’t really a question. That is one of the reasons why the expression ‘free will’ ends in a cul de sac.

  11. Geary Johansen says

    Determinism presupposes some constraint or limit on autonomy. If it is a constraint, then by whom or what? If it is a limit, then how do we account for the perception that self-aware neural networks, seem to themselves to be more than the sum of their parts?

    So whether consciousness arises by divine grace or biological condition is immaterial. No matter how puny, governed by biological process, fleetingly brief or subject to the same logical laws of complex machines, the fact that consciousness exists is proof enough of the partial victory of free will over determinism.

    Consciousness may in many ways, and in most instances, only be a ‘rider’ to deterministic processes, with only a very weak and limited ability to steer the deterministic elephant, but it feels as though our consciousness possesses at least some autonomy. This may be the small increment by which the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.

    There may also be an extent to which determinism represents a deeply embedded desire to cling to the illusionary order of a Newtonian universe. Indeed, it might correlation rather than causation, that the chaos of the small, mirrors the magnitude of free will, but the parallels of these two principles existing at the level of the quantum universe, may be the cause of all uncertainty, unpredictability and free will. Free will itself may be the aggregration of tiny deviations in position in a 4D universe, and the tiny impact volition plays in staging events, that culminates in choice.

    If I know how the time I brush my teeth will impact whether I am first to read and comment on a Quillette article, and this in turn results in a productive dialogue, does it then follow that I possess more or less free will, in being able to predict complex systems more accurately?

    • Klaus C. says

      “the fact that consciousness exists is proof enough of the partial victory of free will over determinism”

      You’re making the same mistake as the rest of them, no matter how I try to correct it 🙂

      When we consciously exercise our will, we are engaging in determinism – seeking to determine specific outcomes via various decision-making criteria.

      Establishing reasons for doing things, sorting priorities, discerning what’s outside our power to change and what is not, investigating possibilities, weighing up pros and cons – this is all a definitively deterministic process intended to constrain outcomes. We can engage in this process because we’re equipped with brains of appropriate cognitive power.

      We have such brains due to a combination of genetic determinism and deterministic environmental factors coming into play during the development of those brains.

      So at no point along the way is there any “victory of free will over determinism”. They very fact that we can and do exercise our will is proof of the creative power of determinism in the context of human thought and behaviour.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Klaus C.

        But you pronounce that our exercising our will is mere determinism on a higher level, but does pronouncement make it so? You say ‘can and do exercise our will’ but you also say ‘there is no victory of free will’ So we can exercise free will, but never win? What does that really mean? I’m not sure this can be seen as anything but a word game. Free will can never be anything other than a construction in our consciousnesses, so I ask: ‘why construct it?’ I construct it because it is impossible to go through the day without it and that is all the ‘reality’ that I need. I could deconstruct it, but nothing would really change since the ‘illusion’ would remain, and the illusion is identical to the real thing.

        • Klaus C. says

          I’m saying we exercise our will – the term “free” is not relevant because exercising the will is a deterministic process, born of many other deterministic processes.

          People are so accustomed to the term “free will” that they don’t realise the term “free” was never meaningful in this context 🙂

          As I said in the other thread: It should be perfectly possible to create models of human cognition in which “human agency” is understood both as a creative tool and an entirely deterministic process.

          “So we can exercise free will, but never win?”

          We can exercise our will and change the course of our lives, and alter the world in a vast many ways, and we do so all the time. But it’s all by deterministic means.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Klaus C.

            It’s a moderate and nuanced view. You appreciate that we run on somewhat more complex rules than the little outboard that I got running yesterday. Tho it sometimes seems otherwise, machines have no freewill.

            “the term “free” is not relevant because exercising the will is a deterministic process”

            But again you simply assert this. Our wills seem to be free as I’m sure you agree, so what, other than the doctrine of determinism itself, supports the idea that things are not what they seem to be? I would say that you beg the question. My preference is to go with was is apparent and, indeed, unavoidable in practice. It may be that in some way that is beyond science we are deterministic, but that determinism is so identical to freewill that I just call it freewill because that’s what it looks like, and folks know what I’m talking about. I also refer the the sunrise even tho of course it’s really the earth rotating. I think that philosophical statements should have some practical validity not simply be doctrinal confessions. Dunno, there is no such thing as green, but the trees sure do fake it convincingly. Love and beauty are just states of matter in my brain, but they feel like more than that. Denying the reality of myself seems to me to be folly. And why wouldya?

        • Geary Johansen says

          @ Klaus C.
          @ Ray Andrews

          You point made valid points. But whilst science can explain consciousness as a phenomena which arises as a result of suitably complex neural networks, there is no proof that it is the sole cause of consciousness- but even if the ‘ideal’ solely arises from biological processes, isn’t there an argument that it in some ways in some ways stand alone. Now I know that this is anecdotal evidence, and subjective, but it has been my experience that people who suffer from Alzheimer’s retain a sense of identity beyond physical presence and memory- even in instances when they glitch and loop, with the more severe cases, there is a sense of the person inside.

          Take a hypothetical of an extremely advanced alien race that has explored every aspect of the universe, it’s physical laws and has evolved to, or created technology that allows it to transcend physical existence. It could theoretically decide to occupy its time with exploring subjective knowledge by embedding itself in the biological processes of other species. In this instance would it be content to remain a passive rider, or in some ways steer the species it comes into contact with. It only has to happen once in an infinite number of infinite universes for it to proliferate, and trump biological processes for all time.

          Another example, is the idea that although our universe conforms to certain immutable laws, there is no guarantee that other contiguous universes obey the same principles. In a null entropy universe, emergent life would aggregate towards scaled consciousness. Even relatively primitive consciousness might find a way of migrating to other universes and forming symbiotic bonds with other life, almost like a benign parasite, and in so doing imprint the more complex consciousness of its host on itself and possible even capturing the essence of the being it inhabits upon death. There is no reason to suppose that this process could not happen more than once, creating the legend of reincarnation, and allowing the being to bring the influence of ‘past lives’ to bear in the present, through subtle steering.

          This may sound like wacky shit, but we cannot prove that it is not true.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @ Geary Johansen

            The universe is not only wackier than we know, it is wackier than we can know 😉

      • David of Kirkland says

        @Klaus C. Who is exercising our will? Clearly, “free will” is too undefined if we do exercise it, but we’re not free to exercise it, yet you can’t show how my will was determined.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Geary Johansen

      “If it is a constraint, then by whom or what? If it is a limit, then how do we account for the perception that self-aware neural networks, seem to themselves to be more than the sum of their parts?”

      If all things are unfree then how is it that we so clearly distinguish between situations where our (imaginary) consciousness is very sure that it is unfree — this happens all the time — and situations where it imagines itself to have a choice? Sometimes, as with an addict fighting his urges (not really fighting them, but imagining that he is), we imagine that we feel that we are half way between constraint and freedom — the addict is not totally free, he is being compelled by his addiction and he knows it, but he is also somewhat free — he can ‘fight’ the addiction and if the will is there, he can triumph and he knows that too. It seems to me that free will exists and the proof is simply the above contrast — we can distinguish between situations when it is clearly absent and situations where it is clearly there. The determinist must say the difference is imaginary.

      As you suggest, the same folks who deny free will are also likely to deny consciousness. But since the illusion of consciousness is absolutely identical to consciousness, what sort of mental exercise is it to try to make a distinction? As many have admitted, even the devout determinist goes thru her day absolutely ignoring her religion — she will act at every moment as tho she is making free choices and she will be at pains to make the right one. If I at this moment saw the light and became a determinist, absolutely nothing would change in how I conduct myself.

      The determinist is a materialist who knows that materialism must forbid anything that is not mechanical so he forbids it even tho in practice this leads to absurdity and even he knows it — but doctrine demands it. On the contrary, it seems to me that consciousness (free will being one of the key attributes of consciousness), is strong evidence that there may be more to the universe than mechanism, as you suggest.

      • molinas says

        In your addict example, the so called free will to “fight” the addiction is also determined from past experiences. This is why some people are able to quit, some don’t. Some people have a better “fighter” circuit installed in their brain, some have less. This “fighter” circuit could be the experience of the death of a love one, the experience of near fatal overdose, friends and family, etc. The mere realization (I mean true deep realization) that one is an addict can trigger one to quit. Maybe you have a very tough personality, mentality in which you value being free or autonomous trumps your addiction. So you say “no one, nothing controls me”, and just quit.
        Regarding on how to live your life, when you truly see the light and accept determinism, you should develop a sense of compassion and empathy. This means you understand that people have circumstances, context becomes very important in every day life, and the goal of your life to understand the truth. As the brain learns the truth, it changes it’s behavior. No more knee jerk reactions, judgments, anger, envy, jealousy. All these negative emotions loose their meaning.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @molinas

          “when you truly see the light and accept determinism, you should develop a sense of compassion and empathy”

          But again you simply pronounce determinism to be true. Why should I believe that when it seems so wrong? I know what you are saying about compassion and it is true that moralizers like myself do not forgive everyone for everything automatically, but we do know what compassion and empathy are, we just don’t hand them out for free. It is one of the classic paradigm differences between conservatives and socialists that the former do occasionally ‘judge’ but I think we’d say that social disapproval sometimes keeps people on the straight and narrow and sometimes helps them to smarten up, too.

          “So you say “no one, nothing controls me”, and just quit.”

          Yes. Convincing someone that they have control over their actions is empowering. Strange it works so often if they really have no control it is all foreordained. Again, maybe there is no control, but the illusion of control is identical to control and having the will to control my life helps me to make (or have the illusion of making) tough decisions, so that’s what I do.

  12. Person P says

    “(…)God exists if you define the sum total of all material things that exist as ‘God.’” Any atheist worth his salt would respond to this by saying that in that sense God exists, but who cares? This simply isn’t the “God” whose existence is disputed by atheists.”

    What a tangent! It’s the only God that exists. Atheists want to discuss other gods because they’re stuck in the past and are short sighted.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yes. They like word play and argument without creating anything useful to humanity, to allow us to predict things, for example. Everything being deterministic, but not predictable, has no value.
      And funny that they choose to play that game, while others do not.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @David of Kirkland

        My favorite game is chess, tho I do like logic puzzles too. But word games seem to me to add far more confusion that light. It is a deep question whether questions like the existence of free will have objective answers at all, perhaps either answer is a mere mental construction. Either way, I want mental constructions that help me navigate the world and free will is one of them.

  13. Yankee says

    @Person P

    I believe you’re missing the author’s point entirely. Atheists who don’t believe there is ANY god can’t possibly be desirous of discussing whether there ARE “other gods” and if so, what are their attributes.

  14. Etiamsi omnes says

    The Ancient Greeks held this belief about us mortals [this, of course, is Latin] : “Enimvero dii nos homines quasi pilas habent” (Indeed we are tossed about like beach balls by the gods.) So did the Aztecs not that long ago. In other words they believed we had not much more agency than animals. The difference being that, contrary to animals, we KNOW it. And then we die…

    • Etiamsi omnes says

      PS: To the SJWs who customarily oppose that the “Ancient Greeks” we know of were privileged white males : granted, but the black impoverished lesbians of lore just didn’t leave much of a written record to extract quotes from.

  15. I do not understand why a lack of free will would make any difference. Let’s assume the world (including human activity) is entirely deterministic: even so, we could never predict what’s going to happen. The system is far too complex; this is basic chaos theory. And this is assuming that there is no true randomness even at the quantum level – if there is, it’s not even theoretically predictable, even if it is deterministic).

    The big question that always comes up is whether people are responsible for their actions (and as a result, whether and how they should be punished for them) in a deterministic world. Our culture and actions regarding this question will profoundly affect the outcome here. If we all agree no one is responsible for their actions, people will take different actions as a result (e.g., because there is no looming punishment). And given whatever philosophical frame you believe in, there’s a good chance you can predict whether the result of that is “better” or “worse.” If we decide not to imprison serial killers, for instance, they will presumably kill more people, and human suffering will increase. Even if the serial killer is not “responsible” for their actions, being in a deterministic world does not imply that punishing them is not a net good. In fact, as far as I can tell, it has no effect whatsoever on how we conceive of responsibility for one’s actions.

    In short, the deterministic world is a function of an infinitely large set of incentives and disincentives that we control part of, but never all of. No one is “fated” to do anything in the future because our actions in the present determine the future. The knowledge of fate is self-defeating, even in a deterministic universe. A lack of free will is not an escape from responsibility.

    • Etiamsi omnes says

      @Talrean : spoken like a true Greek of ancient times.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @talraen

      Very solid.

      “Even if the serial killer is not “responsible” for their actions, being in a deterministic world does not imply that punishing them is not a net good.”

      As you say, perhaps the one practical issue in all this is the issue of punishment. There are folks who seem to think that if no one is responsible fore their actions, then no one can be punished, but this is nonsense. Rather, in a deterministic world, punishment is simply replaced with conditioning. We punish wickedness. We send the wicket to ‘penitentiary’ for them to do penance — to repent and become better souls because a soul can repent and become better.

      Ok, fine, we have no souls and we make no choices (really) and we have no will so we are not guilty as wicked souls!. Rather, we are improperly tuned mechanisms, thus re-tuning is indicated. No more appeal to conscience because there is no such thing. As in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ we recondition using whatever methods work. And note that this reconditioning must be rigorous — since no one is responsible for their actions, there can be no guarantee against repeat offenses can there? … Unless the person has been so deeply reconditioned that it is impossible for them to re-offend. Where this can’t be done, then there is nothing for it but life in prison, or death.

      Speaking of death, if I were a judge and before me there is a tried and convicted child rapist-torturer-murderer, I would ask him: ‘Are you responsible for what you did?’ If he answers yes, I sentence him to death as an evil man. If he answers no, I declare him to be a faulty mechanism and if it is determined that he is unlikely to be repaired, I sentence him to be taken apart.

      Oh, and to belabor the obvious, I would also tell him not to bother begging for mercy, since I would have no choice but to sentence him to be dismantled and furthermore I have no choice but to feel the need for retribution so retribution can’t be something to be ashamed of can it?

      Or maybe we can repent after all:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtwXlIwozog

      • David of Kirkland says

        But why is a child rapist-torturer-murderer bad and in need of punishment? For all we know, that child would have grown up to do much worse, though it’s unclear how good/bad is even determined in a world that’s outside of free will.
        Lightening strikes. Is that good/bad? Seems like someone determines this with their thoughts based on how they perceived the outcome. If the lightening strikes your enemy, it was good; if it strikes me, not so much.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @David of Kirkland

          Rhetorical of course? Yes, when we try to abolish will we are also trying to abolish the ‘soul’ and the dignity of having agency, thus reducing ourselves to mechanisms. Abolishing morality comes next. The murderer is not bad, merely lacking adjustment. Same with Hitler. With the end of responsibility comes the end of human dignity, which is perhaps why advanced socialists are so casual about murdering people by the million.

  16. Stargazer says

    Now, I’m going to make an admission that is surely going to have me laughed out of the Quillette comments section, but I’m used to that. Here goes: I’ve been delving in astrology—yes, you read correctly—for forty years now. As a dilettante: it was never a bread-earner. Of course I don’t believe that planets, especially the faraway outer ones, have any impact on our menial activities down here, anymore than a bus schedule is what makes a bus arrive on time at a certain time. Which doesn’t take away the bus schedule’s reliability as an indicator, though. And just because astrology is not a science as we understand that word today doesn’t mean that it can’t be put to certain tests.
    By the way, please don’t all send in your birth data to put ME to a test.😊 Certainly the progress of genetics will some day make it a very accurate predictor of an individual’s “destiny”, but for the time being I maintain that astrology, despite its very disappointing limits, beats it to that.

    Where I’m getting at is that this ancient art too has been saying that there is very little that we have a real grip on. That being said, however, we are not robots either, because robots would not be tempted to have their charts read by an astrologer. Which most of you will probably congratulate them on…

  17. codadmin says

    Free will exists in proportion to the options you have available to you. A rock has no options, an ant has very limited options, a human has many more options than the ant, a theoretical super intelligence has more options still, a god unlimited options…

    Deterministic fundamentalists have to explain why a human being is just as helpless as a rock. And if they can’t do that, then their theory falls completely flat.

  18. “We can’t have a complete conversation about whether to reject determinism in favor of betting on the existence of free will . . . without at least seriously considering the possibility that this i[s] a false dilemma.”

    Amen

    The determinism/free will question is a classic case of what Alfred Whitehead called “misplaced concreteness”. Human generated concepts take on a life of their own and we forget their poetic origins. Like Medieval scholastics we assume determinism and free will are real things and proceed with all kinds of seemingly logical arguments which end in conclusions which have lost all contact with experiential reality.

    “Determinism” and “free will” are words which describe aspects of experience. To transform them into metaphysical entities is the work of minds which have no sense of the poetic nature of all language.

    Perhaps professor Burgis might have his students pay attention to the nature of their experiences before confusing them with abstract constructs. All off us have experiences of power over our world and all of us have experiences of outer forces compelling our behavior. These are empirical facts. To argue one is metaphysically true and the other is metaphysically false is as inane as arguing up is true and down is false.

  19. S. Cheung says

    This discussion, and with no small irony or coincidence in the invoking of Pascal’s wager, is much like the discussion a few months back about “is there a god”, or perhaps a direct corollary to “believer” vs “atheist”. You can’t “prove” either of those positions. Likewise, you can’t “prove” free will or determinism.

    However, the former debate is more easily resolved for me, as I’m of the mind that the god hypothesis is not sustained, and hence I accept the null. Unfortunately, in the current scenario, I’d be left with the null to both, as in there is no free will AND there is no determinism. Not sure I’m comfortable with just complete and utter randomness as an explanation for the world.

    • Surface Reflection says

      The answer is – neither.
      The full absolute determinism and the full absolute freedom (from all physical laws and limits of the Universe) are both – it should be obvious – unrealistic opposite binary extremes.

      We have varying degrees of freedom within this Universe constraints, laws and conditions – but the casual determinism does not in any way prevent those varying degrees of freedom either. In fact, it is the limits and constrains of the Physical laws and causality that create the very options we can sometimes, depending on the situation – choose from.

      The issue cannot be reduced to those absurd binary extremes.
      Just like the Universe cannot be.

  20. Geary Johansen says

    I don’t really use Facebook that much, and I am having real problems joining Quillette Circle. I’ve sent a request to join, but haven’t received anything back. Can anyone help me? It might be because I only use it for immediate family and don’t even have a picture up.

  21. Thrawn says

    One of the best compatibilist defenses I’ve ever seen, and because of that — as even this defense falls short of being persuasive — I’m even more convinced of my incompatibilist position.

    The point about the implausibility of “a public health official reasoning that it’s better for 10 plague-ridden individuals to go around spreading the disease than for one uninfected person to be placed in quarantine” is great, and caught me off guard. Still, I’m far from convinced — “after all, if it’s literally impossible for individual P to take option B, given all the previous links in the relevant chains of cause and effect, it might seem obviously wrong to say that P ‘was free to’ do B”. That’s just the rock solid end of the argument for me. The “freedom to do otherwise” is key. I’m fully with Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris on this.

    So I can’t help but to think that all these clever and suspiciously intricate arguments for compatibilism are rather like theology: moral responsibility, like God, is just too desirable for some, and they’ll bend their minds to whatever extent in order to protect that belief. But sure, perhaps I’m wrong, and of course the compatibilist position has to be taken seriously.

  22. I might be willing to accept a completely deterministic universe if we consisted of a set of platonic solids or simply spheres bouncing off each other and reverberating with the energy that was created in the beginning. But clearly things are a bit more complicated than that. So, I am compelled to think that we have free will. And, to wonder why certain people get so riled up in their defence of a preprogrammed destiny. They must be really attached to describing everything in terms of particle physics and that would be very daft indeed.

    And, thus I decide to post this simple comment. I could just as equally not have done so. This is my free will in action. Can you prove otherwise?

    • Thrawn says

      Well, if you truly could “equally not have done so”, that would mean the physical state of the universe before you made that decision was somehow physically compatible with both continuations: you posting the comments and you not posting it. That does violate physics’ law as currently understood (which are deterministic in macro-scale even if we accept quantum randomness — which I’m skeptical of). So that’s an issue.

      Think of that: somewhere in your brain some particle has interacted in some way and just didn’t follow the predicted behavior according to physics, but rather some other arbitrary behavior coming from nothing, literally like magic, and worse still, in a way no just random, but compatible with subjective reasons of your mind — like you have a soul capable of neuronal telekinesis. Not even saying something like this is impossible, but surely you can see how incompatible with current scientific knowledge that is.

      • codadmin says

        @Thrawn

        But you, or anyone else for that matter, have no idea what consciousness actually is, and so there is no ‘predicted behaviour according to physics’ when it comes to consciousness.

      • Yeah, non-linear dynamics, chaos and complexity sure make a bit of a mockery of ‘determinism’. Then, you have the unpredictability of radioactive decay. Then, there is Gödel. On top of all that mess, the problem of consciousness.

        Seriously, who is arguing for a deterministic universe and our part in it? Don’t they have better problems to solve?

        Let’s just assume that people are responsible for their actions and prosecute them accordingly. Otherwise, the whole shit house is coming down, as Jim would say.

        • Thrawn says

          @codadmin @jonathangoslan

          But you, or anyone else for that matter, have no idea what consciousness actually is, and so there is no ‘predicted behaviour according to physics’ when it comes to consciousness.

          Well, we do agree on that: if we don’t understand consciousness, and I think we don’t (indeed I think we know that subjective first person experience is incompatible with current scientific knowledge — then so much the worse for current scientific knowledge), then there’s no way the hypothesis of true free will (“freedom to do otherwise”) could be so easily discarded, for of course the “free willing”, if real, would be a conscious thing.

          And for the record I’m an atheist and (otherwise?) materialist, so no religious motivation here.

          That said, I do believe the universe is normally determinist, at least if we put aside putative free will, on a priori grounds: it makes no sense for physical stuff to just behave spontaneously without cause. I also believe that even if quantum indeterminism is true (despite what I just said), that would do nothing to make free will more metaphysically viable: a natural random generator in the brain would be useless.

          And the plot thickens! I strongly suspect we likely have true free will, for otherwise natural selection would have no use for pleasure and pain (the argument for that is not obvious though), and yet I don’t believe we have moral responsibility — as I’m amoral (like Richard Joyce and Richard Garner, moral error theory, google it) — nor do I believe that’s a problem, for the penal system is easily justifiable in purely non-moral but rational grounds. That’s just to show off how complex and variable the map of positions on this subject can be. 🙂

          non-linear dynamics, chaos and complexity sure make a bit of a mockery of ‘determinism’.

          Not really. All that stuff is fully (metaphysically) deterministic, just too complex and hence (epistemically) unpredictable.

  23. Dan Love says

    There are a lot of misunderstandings in the comments. First off, I am a professor of mathematics whose honors thesis was in quantum mechanics. My degrees are in physics and pure mathematics. I have also been an active organizer in a philosophy group for years.

    1) Classical Chaos Theory – Classical chaotic systems (including the one posed in the three-body problem) are deterministic. The defining property of a chaotic system is exponential divergence of phase space trajectories under initial perturbations. Intuitively, this makes the behavior of such systems very difficult to predict and quite complex, but still deterministic. We cannot conflate complexity with indeterminism. A system may be exceedingly complex but deterministic.

    2) The Classical Three-Body Problem – The (classical) three-body problem is about predicting the trajectories of three objects under the mutual influence of gravity; this system is a classical chaotic system. It is famous due to the fact there is no closed-form solution to this easy-to-pose Newtonian problem. The lack of a closed-form solution emphatically does not imply the lack of a solution. A non-closed form solution is known for almost all initial conditions, but the convergence of the series in that solution is very slow – too slow to be practical, so high-precision numerical approximations are relied on in practice (eg. in NASA).

    3) Determinism in Quantum Mechanics – Determinism in quantum mechanics is still very much up for grabs and hotly debated. It depends on your interpretation of quantum mechanics. There are popular interpretations that are deterministic (eg. the Multiple-Worlds interpretation). There are also popular interpretations that are nondeterministic (eg. the Copenhagen interpretation). The deterministic theories have problems in answering how one could, even in theory, know the initial conditions and all effects in the system when local realism has been disproven by Bell’s theorem.

    4) Quantum Chaos – If there is randomness in quantum mechanics, quantum chaos magnifies it, as random initial perturbations are now quantum-mechanically guaranteed. Exponential divergence of phase space trajectories is nature’s way of flicking you off when you’re already down.

    5) Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems – Godel’s First Incompleteness Theorem is the statement that there are arithmetic propositions that cannot be proven. In a standard model theoretic context, it entails there are arithmetic statements that are true but not provable. Godel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem is that no consistent system of arithmetic can prove its own consistency.

    6) Epistemic Determinism (in physics) is well-defined – complete knowledge of the initial conditions of the system entails complete knowledge of the entire evolution of the system.

    A proper conversation would distinguish between the following – epistemic determinism in physics, local realism in physics, global realism in physics, mathematical realism, philosophical determinism (which is epistemic), and philosophical realism (which is ontological). The comments here are conflating a lot of these.

    • Klaus C. says

      Thanks Dan. I’ve tended to emphasise the determinism of complex systems because it seems most relevant on the scale of human cognition and “will”. Human brains are not just vastly complex, their internal order continually changes, as do the challenges and opportunities we face as life unfolds. We’re also capable of making creative decisions that vastly expand our range of future options.

      I’m not sure of the status of epistemic determinism in physics these days, and whether that really has much meaningful bearing on discussions of human consciousness. Epistemic determinism seems focused on the question of how much information is required to build reliable predictive models from initial conditions. It doesn’t dispense with the need for local deterministic agencies (such as human minds) to come into being at the relevant stage of the history, and make the actual decisions that those minds make, in the ways that they make them.

      I’ve also never really shared the strong feelings that old-fashioned philosophical epistemic determinism rouses in some people, but then I’m not a religious believer. 🙂

      It seems to me that those who believe in a “supernatural soul” etc are quite mistaken when they suggest this offers an alternative to deterministic models of human will. As with real physical beings, the hypothetical supernatural beings are either thinking and behaving deterministically, or merely randomly, or some combination of the two.

  24. Dan Love says

    @Klaus

    Thank you for your sharing your opinion. I think, with regard to determinism in physics, that both sides are too confident and we just don’t know yet. There are more physicists who believe quantum mechanics is nondeterministic than not, but there are a lot that don’t, and boy do they put up a fight. The commitment of many of the Many-Worlds interpreters I know is a sight to behind. Since the nondeterministic Orthodox/Copenhagen interpretation was the first that developed, it has dominated the curricula in college.

    The whole “free will debate” is another layer, as even if the universe is nondeterministic, it still doesn’t necessarily imply there is “free will”, as commonly understood. Quantum randomness is an example of something nondeterministic but not under the agency of free will. It seems the way “free will” is commonly understood, nondeterminism is a necessary but insufficient condition.

    So, from where I stand, the debate is very much alive for both sides.

  25. Ian Drake says

    Free-will is being defined as a physical problem when it’s only really important in it’s psychological and behavioural effects: it’s the problem of how ideas about our sense of agency relate to the larger picture of how we fit into the physical processes of the universe. Agency is really a psychological feeling of being able to act on your own accord and not feel inhibited. It is impossible not have that sense; we either feel that it is diminished or we feel it is affirmed. Determinism can therefore have a diminishing on that sense. People do however live with that sense of agency so clearly is irrelevant whether or not determinism is actually true or not: continue dwelling on it and let it affect your sense of agency or get on with the act of living and it won’t. Strangely, it is a matter of choice.

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