Free will and determinism are separate issues

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Jerry Coyne as a new post up on free will.

One of the recurrent arguments made by free-will “compatibilists” (i.e., those who see free will as being compatible with physical determinism), is that those of us who are incompatibilists—in my case, I think people conceive of free will as reflecting a dualistic “ghost in the brain,” and find that incompatible with the determinism that governs our behavior—is this: “Nobody really believes in dualistic free will—the sense that one could have done otherwise. Thus, invoking your kind of incompatibilism is accepting a form of free will that nobody espouses.  So why bother to beat a dead horse?”

via Does the average person believe in determinism, free will, and moral responsibility? « Why Evolution Is True.

Actually, as a compatibilist myself, I’ve never made this argument, and I don’t really see it that much from the compatibilists I’ve read.  But anyway, I’m more interested in something else Jerry wrote.

He looks at a study that in a questionnaire that posited two universes.  In universe A, everything is deterministic.  In universe B, everything is deterministic except for human decision making.  The study then goes on to ask the respondents questions with interesting results.  I recommend reading Jerry’s post for the details.

But after covering those details, he makes this assertion:

To me, the data show that the most important task for scientists and philosophers is to teach people that we live in Universe A.

Except that we don’t.  Oh, our universe has a lot in common with universe A, but A is not the one we live in.  I covered this in detail in another post, but the TL;DR is that quantum uncertainty does affect the macroscopic world.  If it didn’t we wouldn’t even be aware that it existed.  And the fate of Schrodinger’s cat in the famous thought experiment is not determined prior to the cat being placed in the box, in other words the cat’s fate wasn’t set at the big bang.

Of course, given how deterministic the macroscopic laws of nature have been shown to be, in nature those effects generally would have to be incredibly small, within the margin of error of our measurements.  But that’s all it would have to be for the butterfly effect to kick in, snowballing in complex dynamic  systems to eventually make those systems inherently unpredictable, even in principle.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve said before that determinism and free will are really separate issues.  If you define free will as indeterminism, you’ve cracked the door open to libertarian free will.  Now, I don’t personally think quantum uncertainty rescues libertarian free will, since there’s nothing in that uncertainty that anyone could take credit for.  But if you’re basing your opposition to libertarian free will solely on determinism, you should be aware that determinism isn’t as certain as many assume.

24 thoughts on “Free will and determinism are separate issues

    1. I think it comes from many of the natural science’s ability to learn things in controlled experiments, where all extraneous variables can often be excluded. Of course, scientists studying more complex systems such as meteorology, ecology, or any of the social sciences are probably a lot less accepting of hard determinism.


    2. I don’t think Coyne is ignorant of QM. I think that in this debate most people just use determinism as a short hand for “driven by physical law with some quantum randomness thrown in that cannot really be used to justify free will”.


  1. I, personally think that, once the choice is made, it does not really matter whether “I could have chosen otherwise”. I didn’t. That’s it. End of story. I find the notion that “things could have happened differently” quite useless and disturbing. When people start saying “Oh, if I did this and that 10 years ago, I would have been this and that now.” Hind sight is 20/20. Experience is what you get right after you need it. It matters what to do now, not what we could have done in the past.

    Most things are “ghosts we conceive in the brain” including the laws of physics or laws of society. “Literal interpretation” is a figure of speech. I don’t understand why Coyne has a problem with the concept of free will, but does not have a problem with the “phylogenetic tree of life”. There is no such “tree” in reality. It’s a model (or a “ghost”) in Coyne’s head.


    1. Well said. Much of what we consider reality is really either just convention or metaphor. When someone detects that one of those things are actually just convention or metaphor, they often naively denounce it, not realizing that they’re surrounded by the very things they’re denouncing in that concept.


    2. I think that in the context of this discussion, Coyne would agree that it does not really exist, but that it nevertheless reflects something true about reality. Free will is different because many people believe that it *really* exists.


      1. Free will also reflects something true about reality. It refers to a process by which humans make choices and decisions. This process exist because, after all, humans do behave one way or another and there must be a way how this choice happens. You can toss a coin or draw a ticket from a jar or you can follow a set of strict and elaborate rules similar to how you fill out a tax return. But in any case, there is a process by which humans decide what to do. It can be deterministic or based on quantum probabilities or a combination of both – I don’t know, but there is a real process of how it happens. I think, it’s reasonable to call it “free will” and, I think, it’s reasonable to say that it “really” exists.

        The more I think about this, the less I see a contradiction between free will and determinism. But, I admit, this is the way our brain works. At first, something seems completely baffling and sounds like nonsense or heresy, then we get used to it, and then it becomes trivial knowledge. I think, non-compatibilism vs. compatibilism argument is a matter of Kuhn’s Paradigm shift. It’s like this duck-rabbit illusion. I wouldn’t even call it an “illusion”. The picture is what it is. Technically, it’s neither a duck, nor a rabbit. It’s a pattern of black and white pixels. You cannot say that “we see something that’s not really there”. The picture (the pattern of pixels) is there and that’s all we see. But the duck and the rabbit are ideas associated with the pattern that we see. And they are real as associations. You may think of these associations as physical connections between neurons. But, I think, that would be just another metaphor which does not add much to understanding.


        1. I agree with your analysis. But Coyne’s position is that free will is not something fundamental about reality, which he thinks some people believe it is. He would probably agree that the tree of life is also not something fundamental, so I don’t think it’s correct to criticise him for denying free will while embracing the tree of life.


          1. I’m trying to understand what is meant by “something fundamental about reality”. Perhaps, it means that there is no fundamental difference between how people make decisions and how a smoke detector “decides” to set off the fire alarm except that human decision-making involves a bit more sophisticated processes. I can agree with that. By the way, if the smoke detector’s battery is low, it may “decide” not to set off the fire alarm. So, although we can say that a system behaves in a deterministic way, if we factor in unknown variables not included into the original model, “determinism” becomes a purely theoretical concept. The need to determine what determines behavior of the system closes the loop of circular reasoning. I use discovering such loop as a sign to stop further inquiry. Chasing one’s tail makes sense for exercise only.

            An argument between people who say that free will exists and those who say it doesn’t does seem like an argument between people who say that the picture is that of a duck or a rabbit. It depends on the choice of the paradigm.


          2. That is exactly what I mean by something fundamental about reality. The denial of free will by Coyne is the denial of some spiritual psychic force that intervenes when people make decisions so that they cannot be accounted for by the movement of mere quarks and electrons alone.

            Your rabbit/duck analogy is pretty accurate when considering the debate between Harris and Dennett, but not when considering the debate Harris set out to have with libertarians, and it doesn’t acknowledge that it is possibly more helpful to view it one way rather than the other.

            It’s like Harris came upon a group of people who saw a rabbit in the sky and proceeded to worship it. He’s trying to persuade them that there is no rabbit, it’s only a cloud. Meanwhile, Dennett comes in arguing that it really does resemble a rabbit very much, and bolsters this by philosophical arguments about what a rabbit “worth wanting” really is – a mental concept experienced by people when they perceive a certain visual stimulus, so in this sense the cloud really is a rabbit. OK, that might be a legitimate way to look at it, but it misses what Harris is trying to achieve and it’s counter-productive.


          3. OK. I think, I see what you mean. However, I’m not sure if a “rabbit in the sky” is a good analogy for God. Belief in God is often compared to a belief in “flying spaghetti monster”, “orbiting teapot”, “dragon in my garage”, “invisible pink unicorn”, “Thor”, “Tooth fairy”, etc. Those analogies seem like a strawman to me. I think, they are not quite identical to the idea of God.

            I think, William James illustrates the distinction in his The Will to Believe

            Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

            By this definition, FSM or IPU are “dead” hypotheses whereas existence of God is “live”. James’s thesis that “there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all” requires a separate consideration. Buying home insurance does not seem to indicate a belief that the house will burn down. I’m not sure if acting on a possibility indicates a belief. However, it seems to be true that if we buy home insurance, we consider a fire to be a real possibility and also a possibility we care about. FSM, IPU, and other such analogies lack these properties.

            I understand that for an atheist, the idea of God is a “dead” idea. It does not strike any chords, in best case, or strikes dissonant chords as in case of Harris because he is willing to act to oppose the idea.

            This is a separate discussion, however.


          4. Hi agrudzinsky,

            The rabbit in the sky is an analogy to free will, not to God. It would have been a better analogy if the rabbit had some effect other than provoking worship, I suppose, but my imagination failed me.


  2. I would not say free will and determinism are separate issues. If the universe was deterministic, there can be no free will. If there happens things at the quantum level that is non-deterministic (or maybe we just don’t have enough knowledge and insight to see what it is determined by? This seems to be very plausible), then, yes, we don’t live in universe A. The claim that determinism rules out free will still stands, but it is not applicable to the world we live in.

    Further, the very little I know about quantum uncertainty is that it is random (if it is not random, it is determined (are there anything in between these two?)), but randomness is still not free will. Deterministic or non-deterministic, there is no room for free will in the sense that there is an “I” which makes decisions – deterministic laws of nature does, or quantum randomness does. There is no “I” that could influence either of these in a way that is not determined by these. Randomness can be called free, but can it be called will?

    Free will seems to be a subject that has been overcomplicated by our feeling of having it – and therefore trying to prove it or protect it. Any choice has to be based on something, or it is random. The weighing of the different elements it is based on is in turn based on something or random. The choice to do something at random or not is either based on something or random. Where can there be room for free will?


  3. I agree with most of what you said, for libertarian free will.

    “or maybe we just don’t have enough knowledge and insight to see what it is determined by? This seems to be very plausible”
    This is actually known as the hidden variables theory. Einstein, a strict determinist, was a proponent of it. However, it’s apparently been scientifically demonstrated that if there are hidden variables, they can’t provide determinism.


    1. But, as pointed out before, there are deterministic accounts of quantum mechanics which do seem to work, in particular the Many Worlds Interpretation.


        1. Hi SAP,

          It’s really deterministic if it’s really deterministic! If we can’t tell whether it’s really deterministic or indeterministic, that recommends determinist agnosticism rather than a default assumption of indeterminism. The same would go for the hidden variable interpretation.

          Indeed, even if quantum mechanics were not true and atoms were like billiard balls bouncing around deterministically, it would still not be practically deterministic because of chaos.


          1. So, at what point would you ever decide then that something was indeterministic? It seems like you’ve stacked the evaluation criteria in determinism’s favor. No matter how unpredictable a system is, you can always claim if we have more knowledge, we could make it predictable.


          2. I’m not sure you could ever make such a decision about the real world, at least not empirically. I think the two are fundamentally indistinguishable (which, by the way, I sometimes use as an argument against ideas that consciousness or free will have something to do with quantum indeterminacy – pretty much the same kinds of results could be achieved with pseudo-randomness).

            “No matter how unpredictable a system is, you can always claim if we have more knowledge, we could make it predictable.”

            I think this slightly misses the point of the MWI. The MWI isn’t saying we lack any information, it is saying that all possibilities are realised. It is an illusion that only one outcome happens. This doesn’t let us make predictions in the classical sense because the prediction that everything will happen isn’t really very helpful.

            You could potentially side with one or another based on which makes more sense a priori. I think this tilts it in determinism’s favour, especially if you find the MUH convincing (because on the MUH all possibilities are realised).

            Anyway, the larger point is that it is probably not safe to assume that the universe is genuinely indeterministic. That has not been shown and it is in my opinion not true (again, because of the MUH).


  4. Disagreeable Me,
    I’m afraid it sounds like you’re saying that we can’t disprove determinism because we can always dream up a deterministic explanation for any indeterministic phenomena by adding whatever postulates are necessary. It seems to me that could be said of just about any concept we want to axiomatically decide exists.


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