A dialogue on compatibilism

Click through for the full version.

see the rest at: A Dialogue on Compatibilism – Existential Comics.

This edition of Existential Comics manages to summarize most of the free will debate.  I especially like the discussion on libertarian free will on the second page.  As a compatibilist myself, I’ve often said that libertarian free will is incoherent, and this comic explains why.

If we have an immaterial soul, then it still has a nature and is influenced by its experiences.  (Everyone believes this, otherwise they wouldn’t worry about the schools their kids attend or the friends they hang out with.)  The soul would still function according to some kind of rules.  Those rules may be different than the physical universe’s rules, but they would still exist.  Otherwise it’s hard to see how the mind could function.  The only real difference is that an immaterial soul would preserve a mysterious core of self that we might not ever be able to understand.  (Although if we did discover an immaterial soul, I hope we would never cease trying to understand it.)

But, if we remain the summation of our nature and experiences, then the situation for free will is identical whether or not we have an immaterial component to our self.  If strict determinism is true (the domino scenario in the comic), then our actions are predetermined.  If strict determinism is not true, either through quantum mechanics in brain synapses or some magic randomizer in the soul, our actions may not be predetermined, but they are still not free in the libertarian sense.

All of the metaphysical squabbling over free will is somewhat beside the point.  The real issue is whether responsibility remains a coherent concept.  Personally, I think the idea of holding people responsible for their actions remains an important societal function.  Even if strict determinism is true, knowing that you will be held responsible for your decision will be part of the environment that influences that decision, which means that responsibility serves a purpose.

Note that responsibility doesn’t necessarily mean retributive justice, a straw man that many incompatibilists often like to attack.  Many free will libertarians would agree that retributive justice is wrong and unnecessary under the turn-the-other-cheek and similar religious or philosophical doctrines.  Most thoughtful people can agree that we can have moral responsibility tempered with mercy.

21 thoughts on “A dialogue on compatibilism

  1. Totally with you on responsibility. As you say, even in a fully deterministic world, consequences become part of the domino chain.

    I’ve been (rather idly) toying with the idea that free will comes from our ability to create mental models of future outcomes and to then select among them based on our inclinations. In some cases those modeled outcomes may balance so well as to make the selection “random.”

    For example, sometimes when pondering what to make for dinner, I think of various things that often seem equally inviting. It can take a few moments to select among them. Often I go with the first one I thought of (there being some research supporting the legitimacy of first impressions), but sometimes I decide that some other thing I thought of actually sounds more appealing.

    (I do follow your blog. 🙂 )


    1. I like the concept you describe. Free will as the ability to act on our desires. In other words, freedom from constraint or coercion.

      That’s the problem with the term “free will”. It’s so vague. Freedom from what? From external constraint or coercion? From our own nature? From the influence of our experiences? From the laws of physics? From determinism? We have some freedoms and not others. Much of the free will debate is definitional.

      Glad you’re here 🙂


  2. I can’t say I feel this comic was well thought out, portraying the determinist as rather trenchant, going on and on about atoms and ignorant of complexity. Are we in control of our decisions? Define “we” as self aware patterns. What are those patterns? Collections of genetic predispositions and neurons arranged to preserve memories, and, what the hell, lets throw in our microbiota for shits (haha) and giggles. The genetics come from our parents, and the memories are experiences the environment has inflicted upon us, so the patterns which are self aware are all sourced from somewhere other than us. Are we in control of our decisions? No, because our actions are ultimately the result of outside forces. It seems to me that your typical determinist and compatibilist both consider the self to be a transient collection of patterns, and both consider responsibility to be socially important. The difference appears to be that the determinist follows the sources back, while the compatibilist draws a circle around the person, and everything within is kind of owned by that person. Personally, I say the former is more accurate, because the containing circle creates the artificial impression of permanence to a transient system, but functionally there seems to be no real difference.

    Oh, and hi! It’s been a while.


    1. Hi Dave! Good to hear from you. It has been a while.

      A few thoughts. Determinism hasn’t been demonstrated empirically. Indeed, the results of quantum experiments might falsify it.

      Are we in control of our decisions? It depends on how you define “control”. Control only exists at subsets of reality. Across all of reality it is a meaningless concept since everything has prior causes. But if we draw a border around a subset of reality in time and space, then whatever in that subset is causing things could be said to be in control. Yes, that thing has causes outside of the subset, but then everything does. Control is a relative concept; it is incoherent as an absolute one.

      Reality is different than our naive conceptions of it. But that doesn’t mean it’s productive to stop using words like “control” or “choice” at the social, psychological, or even biological levels of reality. To do so is, I think, a category mistake.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I like your insight on the circle that is called “us”. That is where we appear in the causal link, choosing what we will make inevitable and what we will discard as mere possibilities.

      The fact that our choices are caused by our reasons, our feelings, our beliefs, our values, our memories, our past experiences, our microbiota, etc. means that it is in fact US in the driver’s seat. All of these things become us before they have any causal power at all in the universe.


  3. Strict determinism produces free will. The same deterministic universe that produced biological organisms that can stand and walk also gave us the abilities to think and choose. Walking is not an illusion. Choosing is not an illusion.

    Since free will is nothing more than us choosing for ourselves what we will do next, without being forced by someone else to do something against our will, there is no conflict between free will and determinism.

    Free will requires a deterministic universe to put effect our choices. And determinism has clearly made the existence of free will inevitable.


    1. Hi Marvin. Good to hear from you!

      As a compatibilist, I agree with you that determinism is compatible with free will (at least for any practical version of “free will”), but I wonder how a universe with quantum indeterminacy would affect your argument.


      1. I’m pretty sure there is no quantum indeterminacy. But if there were, it’s effects would be unpredictable, by definition. Therefore it would be a random occurrence whether it gave you more freedom (produced a new choice option) or less freedom (removed a choice option). So it’s a wash.

        But I suspect quantum “indeterminacy” actually means “unknown cause” rather than “no cause”. That’s why they would employ probability for prediction rather than direct causation, sort of like the weather forecast. Perhaps, since Schroedinger’s cat has the same possibility of being alive as dead, you have to be prepared in your math to handle both cases.


        1. Thanks. I’m curious what makes you confident that there isn’t quantum indeterminacy. Do you subscribe to the many worlds interpretation? Just wondering.

          Are you familiar with Bell’s theorem? I don’t understand it, but it’s supposed to rule out hidden variable theories.


          1. I just think that true “indeterminacy” cannot possibly be. I’m not all that familiar with quantum theory. But I don’t believe in the supernatural or parallel universes (except perhaps on paper in mathematical models).

            I think it is possible to build a machine that can flip a coin in a vacuum within a stable gravity field such that it will always land heads up. I suspect this is true of all “random” events, including those at the subatomic level and quirky quarks.


        2. I think it’s important to distinguish the bizarre but scientific strangeness of quantum mechanics from the (unfounded) supernatural conclusions that many mystics and spiritualists try to derive from it.

          When you have a few minutes, if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to check out the video in this post. It demonstrates the central mystery of QM and why it’s so unsettling to the strict deterministic world view.


          1. 1) Waves are not “things” themselves. Waves are rather things (e.g., photons), or effects (e.g., radio wave electromagnetic vibrations), that are behaving in bursts. The the frequency of the bursts (time between them) may be measured (color variations in light and FM radio) and the intensity may be measured (brightness in light and AM radio).

            2) It seems obvious that the detector was “touching” the atoms in some fashion in order to count them. Perhaps it was bouncing photons off them. Or maybe introducing an electromagnetic field to detect them. But it was clearly doing something to cause the single atoms to behave differently when it was turned on than when it was unplugged.


        3. A few points that I want to make sure you didn’t miss.
          1. Sending one particle at a time produces the wave interference pattern. A single particle interferes with itself. Particles are waves, until they’re observed, then they’re particles.
          2. You’re right. The act of learning which slit the atom went through involves interacting with it, which alters things. This is often referred to as decoherence, or the wave function collapse, since it instantly causes the wave to disappear and replaces it with a definable particle.
          3. There’s no way to know or control where the particle will appear at the point of decoherence or wave function collapse. All that can be known are probabilities of where it will be.

          In terms of determinism, 3 is the most relevant item. There are several “interpretations” of what is going on (Copenhagen, Many Worlds, de Broglie, etc). Some, like Many Worlds, preserves determinism, but all of them have to throw some aspect of common sense reality under the bus (determinism, locality, counter-factual definity, etc).


          1. Here is what I saw in the video:
            1) The interference pattern was produced by:
            (a) the photons going through two slits, by
            (b) the atoms going through two slits en masse, and by
            (c) the atoms going through two slits one at a time.
            2) When the detector was introduced above the top slit, you started getting two piles (as with the sand) instead of the interference pattern.
            3) When the detector was unplugged, the interference pattern returned.
            4) There was no instance where a single atom “interfered with itself”.

            I’m pretty sure that cause and effect determinism always holds.
            I’m pretty sure that there is but one actual reality.
            I’m pretty sure that “counter-factual definity” is nonsense, because the adjective “counter-factual” cannot be applied meaningfully to any fact.

            But if you’d like to explain any of them to me, I’ll be happy to explain them to you. 🙂


        4. It sounds like you might have missed the part of the video where 1(c) produced the wave interference pattern. It’s a key fact. Incidentally, this isn’t something this one guy came up with. It’s pretty standard scientific quantum physics knowledge going back to the late 20s. If you read any standard quantum physics material, you’ll quickly read about that scientific empirical fact.

          Everyone’s initial reaction to QM is that there must be some mistake. That the people talking about it must have missed some crucial detail or concept. But quantum mechanics is the most verified scientific theory in existence. Whether we like it or not, it’s how the universe works.

          Counter factual definity is just the idea that what happened, happened, and what didn’t happen, didn’t happen, which sounds like basic reality. The many worlds interpretation posits that everything does happen, that the wave function collapse isn’t a collapse, but a spreading superposition effectively creating new universes, which pretty much throws counter factual definity under the bus, but it does preserve determinism, just not determinism that can be observed. As I noted above, it’s just one of many interpretations some of which throw either locality or determinism under the bus.


          1. 1c) was the result of shooting multiple atoms, one at a time, through the 2 slot mask. I suppose the “atom canon” was a bit of a blunderbuss to randomly send the atom through either slot. If you’ll remember, each atom produces only a SINGLE SPOT on the target. The interference pattern is produced by atoms coming through one slot landing close to an atom coming through the other slot. Where the particles pile up, you get the visual line.

            My point was that the behavior of the photons was identical to the behavior of the atoms. That’s why I say that we are looking at an effect produced by particles that are coming in waves. (The particles don’t “become” waves, rather they arrive in waves or bursts. The measure of “wave frequency” would indicate more or less time between the bursts).

            I could be wrong. But what are the chances of that? 🙂

            I looked counterfactual definiteness in Wiki. Apparently it means as definite as one can be in the absence of experimental data. And I suppose that would apply to a lot of “theoretical physics”.

            I appreciate that the imagination must be employed to get around some mathematical problems, but they are conveniences, like saying the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Eventually, the formulations must resolve into meaningful statements about the one real world we live in.

            Determinism holds in the real world of cause and effect. (So does free will, of course).


        5. The single spot on the back screen was when the wave becomes a particle, when decoherence or the wave function collapse takes place. The detectors just make it happen earlier.

          You’re right that photons and atoms behave similarly in the experiment. Wave / particle duality applies to both. It’s even been observed with isolated molecules. Larger than that and the constant interaction with the environment keeps things decohered.

          I’m not going to argue about the rest. This is basic quantum physics. It’s well known. There are interpretations that preserve determinism, but only at a cost of other common sense understandings of reality. Until you understand that, you’re not really coming to terms with quantum physics. (Or you’re a genius destined to win a Nobel prize 🙂 )


          1. I’m no genius. I think my IQ is around 127. And my theories on the two slot experiments are pretty much guesses. I’ve never formally had a physics or chemistry course. I learned mostly from “Watch Mr. Wizard” and reading popular science and other science magazines. Oddly, I think I first heard about the effect of speed upon time on a TV program by the Moody Bible Institute. They described how a man sent from earth in a rocket at near light speed would arrive back home still young while time passed faster for everyone else.

            And I didn’t comment on the more normal and expected pattern when there was just one slot open. I would have expected to see a much wider distribution through the single slot to make sense of the interference pattern appearing when two slots were open.

            I think a lot of people have grasped on to quantum indeterminacy to get them out of the deterministic inevitability paradox. But that is unnecessary.

            Inevitability is a fact, but a totally useless fact. For example:

            1) Knowing our choice will turn out to have been inevitable provides no help in making the decision. We cannot know for certain what we would have chosen until we actually finish our deliberation and make the choice. If we reflect upon our deliberation, we may see that our reasons and feelings inevitably led to this choice. But we had to go through the mental process to get there. Inevitability is useless.

            2) There is no way to take inevitability into account while making the decision without introducing an infinite loop. If it appears that option A is to be our inevitable choice, could we decide to choose option B instead? Well, if we do then option B was actually inevitable, so if we choose option A … etc. Again, inevitability is useless.

            3) Some people think deterministic inevitability removes free will. But here we are, thinking and choosing what we will do next. We cannot simply sit back and watch inevitability happen, because our choices cause what happens next, and choosing to sit and wait is also a choice that changes what happens next!

            4) Some people think that it means that no one can be held responsible for what they do. But it cannot serve as a “get out of jail free card”, because it always operates equally on both sides of all equations. If you say, “But judge, it was inevitable that I did the crime”, the judge will say, “And it is inevitable that you are penalized”.

            It is best to simply acknowledge universal inevitability and then ignore it. At best it is a useless fact. At worst it’s misuse causes false conclusions and confusion (often in the most intelligent minds).


          2. On the free will stuff, I agree completely. Even if strict determinism is true, it has no real effect on free will, which I see as simply having enough degrees of freedom where it is productive for society to hold us accountable for our actions.


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