The necessary attributes of a responsible agent

George Ellis has an article at Aeon on free will that is garnering some attention.  Ellis’ case is a fairly classic one.  Brain are complex systems whose operations, due to chaotic and stochastic dynamics, cannot be predicted.  Furthermore, minds constrain the detailed physical reactions, a case of downward causation.  And if that weren’t enough, there’s the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics.  Therefore, free will.

He finishes with this conclusion:

If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.

That’s a devastating conclusion. We can be grateful it’s not true.

The problem is that there’s nothing in randomness that provides responsibility.  If it’s a valid excuse for me to blame my actions on the deterministic laws of physics in a clockwork universe, then it’s an equally valid excuse to blame my actions on the random laws of physics in an unpredictable universe.  Randomness, in and of itself, doesn’t add anything praiseworthy or blameworthy to my actions.

In addition, the idea of downward causation is an invalid mixing of description levels.  It’s always possible to account for causes at the descriptive level of the effect.  That doesn’t mean the higher level descriptions aren’t useful.  If I’m meeting you for lunch and call to let you know I’m stuck in traffic, that’s a lot easier to say than to describe how I’m delayed because of the car in front of me, which is delayed because of the car in front of it, etc, but the latter is the fundamental causal reality.

And it’s a mistake to take quantum mechanics as definitely adding significant randomness to these dynamics.  Setting aside that there are deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics, any quantum indeterminacy gets cancelled out as we scale up to larger systems, unless there is something about those systems that magnify isolated quantum effects.

The good news is that determinism doesn’t really take away social responsibility.  (Whether it takes away free will is a definitional pit I’m going to just step around.)  Indeed, to the extent things are deterministic, it preserves the factors that really make our actions responsible or irresponsible ones.

What are those factors?  In my mind, a responsible entity has three attributes:

  1. Desires, that is, automatic inclinations toward certain actions (or inactions).
  2. An ability to foresee the plausible consequences of those actions.
  3. A capacity to override its desires, or indulge them, in light of the foreseeable consequences.

2 and 3 function best in a deterministic system and environment.  To the extent there is randomness, they are actually undermined.

If you think about it, this fits with who or what in our society we hold responsible for their decisions.  Normal mentally complete adults have these capabilities.  Animals, children, and the mentally ill either don’t have them, or only have them in some diminished capacity, which is why holding them responsible for their actions has limited utility.  And being held responsible actually becomes part of the foreseeable consequences for those capable of such foresight.

All of which is to say, I don’t think Ellis successfully makes his case, but he is wrong to think he even needs to make it to avoid the “devastating conclusion” he fears.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

48 thoughts on “The necessary attributes of a responsible agent

  1. —“Normal mentally complete adults have these capabilities. Animals, children, and the mentally ill either don’t have them…”

    The tricky part in my mind is how to define “mentally complete” vs “mentally ill” in humans. Are we only considering nature, or does nurture play any role here?

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    1. It is tricky, but I think the key is to focus on who has the capability to foresee consequences and the ability to override their desires. Lots of people have those capabilities, but don’t exercise them.

      I think it’s both nature and nurture, but the nurture part could be due to a brain injury, pathology, or other event beyond the person’s control. Of course, using recreational drugs also impairs foresight and volition, but the person chooses to enter that state.

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  2. I agree with your main point – randomness adds nothing, and if substantial can actually hurt autonomy and responsibility. But I have a minor disagreement about quantum randomness affecting the macro-scale, and a major one about downward causation.

    If quantum mechanics is fully random (which I doubt), it definitely ramifies up to the macro scale. Our world, including the human body, is full of chaotic processes. Fluid flows, for lots of examples. Any tiny difference will eventually become a large one, where “eventually” is much less than a human lifetime.

    On macro-causation: there is no objective hierarchy of fundamentality. For any set of descriptions that are all applicable, you can pick out some subset and declare it “fundamental” if you want. But that is just your perspective. Another person can add one or more of your “derived” terms to the “fundamental” set and use the new “fundamental” set to derive one or more terms you called “fundamental”. This includes set of properties that span different size scales.

    The question is not whether we have to cite macroscopic properties to help explain an event, but whether we can. The answer is yes we can – even when the event is microscopic. Why did the silicon atom absorb an X-ray? Because the researcher put the edge of the crystal into the X-ray beam, and the atom was part of that edge (and some further microscopic details about the X-ray distribution are applicable).

    One more thing. “Free will” isn’t a definitional pit, despite appearances. It’s actually a scientific pit, because even the intuition behind a strict “could have done otherwise” definition can actually be satisfied in a deterministic world. It all hinges on the science of time and causality. The scientific pit is well worth exploring.

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    1. Interestingly, even if QM is deterministic, as Ellis pointed out to me on his article thread, it’s not a determinism we’re able to cash out, as in use to make predictions. Of course, even if, as appears to be the case, the statistics become very reliable and deterministic as the population of quantum events increase, the resulting determinism still can’t be cashed out due to complexity. Which makes the proposition of any infinitessimal contribution of quantum events to randomness essentially an untestable one.

      “The question is not whether we have to cite macroscopic properties to help explain an event, but whether we can. ”

      Actually, I disagree. Ellis seems to imply that we are forced to take into account macroscopic properties to account for microscopic events. Here, the fact that we don’t have to cite the higher level concepts is crucial. If we don’t have to, then all causes can be accounted for at the microscopic level, at least in principle.

      On free will and the definitional pit, I don’t know. Personally I’m a compatibilist. But it seems to me the phrase “could have done otherwise” is pretty vague. A lot depends on the level we’re meaning for “could”. At one level, “I could have used different words in the last sentence,” is a completely coherent and plausible statement expressing a real fact, one that can be used to talk about my explanatory strategy. On the other, “The physics could have played out differently given the same initial conditions,” in a deterministic universe, seems far less plausible. What makes the first one more plausible is it involves an agent balancing desires against foreseeable consequences.

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      1. I didn’t read Ellis’s article, only your commentary. So I assume you’re right, that the fact that microscopic events can be explained by other microscopic ones, derails one of his arguments. But in that case, he’s just using the wrong argument. What matters is that macroscopic factors, including human choices, have genuine explanatory power.

        I very carefully (or weaselly, if you prefer) stated that the intuition behind “could have done otherwise” can be satisfied. And that intuition is not directly about “initial conditions”. It’s about conditions that are independent of what you do. There is a reason why people don’t ask whether you “could have done otherwise, holding future conditions fixed”. Namely, people think that the future is not independent of what you do, so it can’t constrain what you do now. Whereas, people think that the past is entirely independent of what you do now.

        Now, are those beliefs about time and (in)dependence true? Those are scientific questions.

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        1. I agree that macroscopic factors have explanatory power. Emergence works for a reason. As long as we’re clear that a lower level explanation is also possible, at least in principle.

          I have to admit that I think the future is not independent of what we do. I wouldn’t say the past is independent of what we do, so much as what we do is dependent on the past. Put another way, the constraints always move forward in time. I know you’ve discussed before that this might not actually be true, but I have to admit to not understanding the rationale.

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          1. Yeah, it’s not actually true. The laws of microphysics are CPT (charge, parity, time) reversible. In consequence, scientific explanations based on those laws work equally well in either time-direction. Those micro laws are also sufficient to explain any genuinely deterministic relations.

            Macroscopic laws, such as fluid mechanics, turn out to be only probabilistic, even if the probabilities are quite close to 1. Ironically, this includes all the reliable generalizations that convince average people that time “flows” in one direction.

            If you want a really good explanation of some key points here, you can’t beat Jenann Ismael’s paper “Decision and the Open Future”

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          2. Yes, but the arrow of time exists regardless. Or is this one of those theories where it doesn’t? Or is emergent from entropy?

            Maybe it’s my accounting training, where we’re taught not to make decisions on sunk (past) costs, but only on future costs, because the future can be affected, while the past is set. That fits with all my experience. The evidence or logic would have to account for that common experience to seem plausible to me.

            Thanks for the paper link. Just saved it off to my reading folder, although it might be a while. (That folder is getting kind of large.)

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          3. The arrow of time (meaning a single, particularly distinctive direction) is emergent from entropy. In cosmologies where entropy is at a minimum in the middle of the history of the (Ur-)universe, which way the arrow of time points depends on which side of that minimum you live on.

            You know those crazy people who think that Australians look in the direction we call “down” and see blue sky? You know, those round-earth theorists? This idea is a lot like that. (Analogy stolen from Sean Carroll; tongue in cheek spin on it by yours truly.)

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          4. Ah, so we’re not saying time itself is emergent, just the arrow of time? That’s interesting. But what about a system where energy from outside causes entropy to decrease? The arrow of time doesn’t seem to reverse for those systems.

            Carroll has a tendency to portray his ideas as inevitable. I guess we all do when we’re convinced we’re right. But I don’t see that the logical or empirical case has been made yet, or that the resistance is just being resistant for emotional reasons.

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          5. Time itself could be emergent too, but that one depends on speculative physics and is above my pay grade. Here is an example discussion with lots of physics references.

            Time doesn’t appear to reverse due to local gatherings of free energy, because we still have access to an overall environment of increasing entropy. The creation of records – and especially memories – depends on an overall increase of entropy. If you are willing to grant the philosophical assumption that memory is key to our sense of time’s direction, the physics is sufficiently worked out to make the rest of the case. Mlodinow and Brun explain. You shouldn’t quite grant the philosophical assumption, though – there’s more to our time sense than that. But I do think the other main factor, asymmetric macroscopic influence, has a similar entropic explanation.

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  3. Agreed! But I also think we could be more nuanced in terms of the “Lots of people have those capabilities, but don’t exercise them.” aspect. I see the capability to override desires less as a binary “either you have it or you don’t” and more like a spectrum that constantly fluctuates based on current levels of needs denial that one has been required to endure, and the presence and severity of past pathologies that one has sustained.

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    1. Hmm… This comment was supposed to be a reply to the above comment, copied here:

      “It is tricky, but I think the key is to focus on who has the capability to foresee consequences and the ability to override their desires. Lots of people have those capabilities, but don’t exercise them.

      I think it’s both nature and nurture, but the nurture part could be due to a brain injury, pathology, or other event beyond the person’s control. Of course, using recreational drugs also impairs foresight and volition, but the person chooses to enter that state.”

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree it’s not really binary. On the other hand, most people seem to be firmly on one side or the other. But there are cases on the blurry boundary.

      It’s worth noting that holding people responsible doesn’t necessarily mean harsh penalties. We should bear in mind that if we’d been born with their innate dispositions and had their experiences, we’d be in the same boat. At the same time, society does have to curtail anti-social behavior. Doing so won’t always be perfectly fair in some platonic idea of fairness.

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  4. My take is that when I say I have free will, I am just putting a boundary around a bit of the ‘real’ world and calling that ‘me’; then attributing responsibility to that bit of the real world for causal activities that flow through it, and that I have chosen to categorise in terms of situations, actions and outcomes. Any philosophical problems that gives me then flow from me having artificially put a boundary about a bit of the real world and labelled it ‘me’, separate from ‘not me’, not from any contradiction between the laws of physics and the summary, simplified description I have of ‘me’ in terms of my free will, decisions and actions.

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    1. Good point Peter. When the scope of our considerations are the entire universe, free will can’t exist in any meaningful manner. (At least unless minds are outside of the universe, which the evidence doesn’t support.)

      It’s only when we narrow the scope of interactions to particular times and places that free will becomes meaningful. Within that scope, a person’s preexisting inclinations, values, and learned judgments are uncaused causes. In the larger scope, these are just causal factors from before or outside of the narrow scope. But within the narrow scope, they essentially represent a freedom a less sophisticated system (such as a reflexive one) doesn’t have.

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  5. Referring once again to hierarchy: What’s really on trial here Mike is not determinism verses free will, but whether homo sapiens are moral beings. And in order to answer that compelling question, one must locate a grounding definition for morality, one that is not subordinate to subjectivity.


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  6. I do not disagree with your assessment Mike. But here is the conundrum: Without an objective morality, we automatically default to what Friedrich Nietzsche called a master/slave morality. Is there no other alternative?

    A couple of years ago I asked Bernardo Kastrup if his model of idealism resolved the paradox of the master/slave morality. Bernardo was honest and said no, he commented further that personally, he had no idea how to resolve it. What do you think? Can it be resolved, and is there a better alternative?


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    1. Hi Lee, I hope it’s not rude of me to jump in here. I’m currently reading this book, “Transcend: the new science of self-actualization” by Scott Barry Kaufman. It’s an update of Maslow’s humanistic theory. I’m not sure if it can be considered an objective morality, but I think it has great potential for steering us clear of the master/slave pathology that is rampant in our world.

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      1. I don’t mind if you jump in here A/Eric. But here is the underlying problem: As long as governance is grounded in the draconian concept of the “Rule of Law”, there will always be a master/slave morality. That paradigm cannot be avoided. It’s like Wyrd stated, “morality is best grounded in notions of egalitarian and parity”, and the “Rule of Law” is anything but egalitarian.

        Here’s my solution: Shit can the “Rule of Law” paradigm and replace it with a model grounded in “Managing the Chaos”. That’s what our own mind does best as it struggles to make sense of the multiplicity of patterns, it manages all of that chaos. Why not extend that fundamental experience we as individuals know so well and apply it in the real world of governance.


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        1. —-“ Why not extend that fundamental experience we as individuals know so well and apply it in the real world of governance.”

          Can you possibly give any concrete examples of ways this could be implemented? It’s currently a bit too abstract for me to follow your meaning.

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          1. Wyrd nailed it. The rule of law is not synonymous with justice. As with any administrative control, rules are absolutely essential is one is going to manage chaos. But the targeted objective of any rule should always be one of management, not the enforcement of those rules. Enforcement of any law should be secondary to the management of any given situation because those chaotic situations involve dynamic human beings. It is the parity of all human minds that needs to be considered, minds that are open to a negotiated settlement of some kind, minds that have a natural affinity to resist arbitrary rules and the unwarranted abuse of authority that goes hand in hand with arbitrary rules.

            Enforcement should always be used as the last resort, never the first; unless there is a clear and present danger. Personally, I don’t consider selling illegal cigarettes on a public sidewalk or allegedly using a counterfeit $20 dollar bill to buy cigarettes at a convenient store a clear and present danger.
            Under our current paradigm, police in America are a proxy for the law. It’s the way the system is set up. Policemen might as well be the Vicar of Christ himself, equipped with all of the authority of God almighty. No amount of police reform will be affective unless we move away from the rule of law model and jettison the oppressive, draconian judicial system that comes along with that paradigm.


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        2. But how does one manage chaos without law? It is not the law, but the nature of the law. Socially, some are oppressive while others necessarily constrain. The big morality trick, I think, is recognizing the fundamental parity of all human minds.

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    2. I can’t say I’ve ever found Nietzsche’s analysis here compelling. That said, I’ve never read him directly, just the available summaries. But it seems grounded in faulty history (although perhaps the best available in his time) and a somewhat simplistic analysis. Ironically, he admits what he calls “slave morality” “won”, but he considers it inferior. I think it’s just Nietzsche projecting his own preferences.

      The key thing I think Nietzsche lacked was an appreciation of the strength of coalitions and alliances. Such coalitions are why “slave morality” won. It’s why most hunter-gatherer societies are actually quite egalitarian. Because people working together can overcome the strength of bullies. Put another way, the slaves organized can become the masters (at least if there are enough of them).

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      1. You’ve successfully sidestepped my question Mike. A master/slave morality by whomever holds the reins of power in that model is still a master/slave morality. I can only conclude that you must be satisfied with the paradigm and see no need to replace it with something that is better.


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        1. I didn’t intend to sidestep it Lee. If the concern is that power controls the rules, well, that’s true to an extent, but there are many different kinds of power. A state might have the ability to enforce its rules, but what a culture recognizes as “true” right and wrong tends to come from cultural rather than coercive power.

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          1. Your rationale is a straw man Mike, for one’s culture is reflective of the coercive power held by the ruling class (the master). The only condition where this model does not hold true is in a revolution where the ruling class (the master) is overthrown and simply replaced by another ruling class which is just another master. Here is a quick civic’s course to illustrate my point about cultural influences:

            In a democratic republic such as our own, the individual citizen is sovereign. What this means is that the legislative branch has the power to create laws but the legislative branch has absolutely no power to enforce any of those laws. The power to enforce those laws is relegated to a jury of our peers. The jurist has the power to convict or acquit based upon the law. But what is the best kept secret in America is that the jurist also has the power to judge the law and/or judge the penalty required by the law. If an individual jurist finds the law to be unjust and/or the penalty to be unjust, one can acquit based upon those findings alone.

            It is a check and a balance built into our system that nobody within the ruling class wants the peasants to understand. There is not a judge in any court room in America that will make that information available to a prospective jurist. A judge will not even allow a defense attorney to make that information available to jurists who have been selected to serve. The master/slave morality is a pathology.


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          2. Lee,
            Can’t say I agree with that analysis of power in culture. It seems rooted in 19th century thinking. (Which I think permeates the analyses of Nietzsche that I’ve seen. He seemed to see himself as transcending his own time, but his writing seems like a reaction to it, a cautionary tale for all of us.)

            From my reading of history, cultural causal forces can be top down, but also bottom up and lateral. A starving artist can have profound effects on how a culture sees things, often to the consternation of the state.

            Another aspect I find interesting about analyses from people like Nietzsche (or Marx or many other famous thinkers), it comes from a perspective of someone who’s never actually held power, or had to do what was necessary to wield it, hold on to it, etc. Careful reading of the biographies of powerful people, as well as my own experience in management, leads to the conclusions that real power is fleeting, that every use of it is essentially spending it, that is, diminishing it, and that it has to be replenished with activity not usually associated with power, and that often people with power are just as clueless as everyone else except, perhaps, about how power works.

            That last point makes me pretty skeptical of any notion of the “ruling class” conspiring to hide things from the population. It assumes far too much competence from those supposedly doing the conspiring.

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          3. “That last point makes me pretty skeptical of any notion of the “ruling class” conspiring to hide things from the population.”

            If you believe this assessment, you are extremely naive Mike. Have you watched the documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns?

            For the record: There was a bill introduced in the legislature for the State of Idaho back in the 80s, it stipulated that a judge had to inform all jurists of their rights and power as jurists, the rights and power I so clearly articulated in my previous post. That legislation never made it out of committee and it was never introduced again. If that isn’t conspiring to hide things from the population, I don’t know what is.

            I’ve spent most of my career in management and I’ve never agreed with the position held by the ruling class. It’s a master/slave morality, them against us, a model pitting one side against the other. Management within institutions is a cop mentality where managers recite their lines with a religious fervor; “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.” Every person I’ve ever witnessed make the transformation from the working stiff to management becomes influenced by the mindset of the master/slave morality. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I am better than the peasants, I have to be, or else I wouldn’t have been chosen to be in a leadership position”. It’s really sad that homo sapiens have not progressed that far since we first crawled out of our caves into the sunlight.

            As a species, do we really expect anything to change as long as we hang onto the master/slave morality; are we really that thick?


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  7. “The problem is that there’s nothing in randomness that provides responsibility.”

    In itself, no, but the future being fundamentally unpredictable may be what allows intellect to make genuine choices as it navigates through its environment.

    The most compelling point wrt free will in my book is that we believe we have at, and it appears that we do. We do appear to make decisions that affect the future. If reality is fully determined, why would we have such an abiding sense? Why doesn’t life feel more like watching a movie or riding a train? Why do we feel like the driver?

    Given the grueling demands of evolution, I think a reasonable answer is that we do have free will, and physics is just going to have to catch up to that fact.

    I think the point isn’t the randomness itself, but that it allows a mind to choose.

    I also think the physics view of reality as a deterministic machine is utterly false. What’s weird to me is that we’ve known this ever since quantum mechanics and Heisenberg Uncertainty. But we perceive (incorrectly I’m saying) that the macro world works according to deterministic rules.

    I think it just mostly appears to on a macro level. Chemistry, for instance, is determined. Mix this much of this and that much of that, and you get the same results ever time. But there’s no way to prepare or measure this or that down to the quantum level (Heisenberg won’t let you). So there’s no way the outcome is the same from experiment to experiment, not at the atomic level.

    Put it this way: If it were possible to grow truly identical seeds in truly identical environments, I think you’d still get different plants. And if plants aren’t determined, there’s no way our brains are.

    I do take the view that reality, ultimately, consists of quantum micro systems constantly evolving (deterministically per Schrödinger) and being “measured” in interactions with other quantum systems. Those constant myriad interactions resulting in new quantum systems that evolve and interact. All those “measurements,” as we know, appear truly random. There might be some underlying micro laws that make those determining, but we haven’t yet found them.

    “The good news is that determinism doesn’t really take away social responsibility.”

    If strict causal determination was genuinely true, how could it not? All choice would be epiphenomenal. A true illusion.

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    1. I think we have the feeling of free will because we live in a world where we don’t know what’s going to happen, where we’re forced to make bets all the time in order to survive and flourish. Even if the universe is utterly deterministic, we have no ability to cash out that determinism, to know what’s going to happen. So we have to make decisions on the best information we can get and our own preferences.

      On physics having to catch up, I think you know my stance on evidence vs our intuitions. 🙂

      “So there’s no way the outcome is the same from experiment to experiment, not at the atomic level.”

      But we know large numbers of quantum events follow predictable statistical patterns. If that’s the case, then wouldn’t it be true that there are numerous specific quantum outcomes which could add up to the same macroscopic events? (Given the definition of entropy you gave, would this amount to quantum entropy?)

      “Put it this way: If it were possible to grow truly identical seeds in truly identical environments, I think you’d still get different plants. ”

      I don’t know if there’d ever be a way to truly test this, since keeping even macroscopic variances out might be impossible. There would always be variances in electromagnetic and gravitational fields, if nothing else. Maybe if someone had a shielded laboratory deep in an intergalactic void.

      “If strict causal determination was genuinely true, how could it not? All choice would be epiphenomenal. A true illusion.”

      What do you think of the response I gave in the post, or the one Peter and I discussed?

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      1. “So we have to make decisions on the best information we can get and our own preferences.”

        If reality is strictly determined, the “decisions” and the information and our preferences are all predetermined. The mental states involved in “deciding” are just frames in a movie being generated in real-time according to the laws of micro-physics. Anything that “feels” like a “decision” is an epiphenomenon.

        The problem, as I see it, is that those “decisions” we “feel” we’re making have real-world effects. It’s the problem of epiphenomenalism. What is the actual mechanism by which mental states become actions.

        The way out of the contradictions is accepting that mental states actually do decide among multiple possible paths based on real-time inputs. Decide to build a bridge and then go on to build a bridge.

        “But we know large numbers of quantum events follow predictable statistical patterns.”

        To me, the word “statistical” is significant.

        As you say, it compares with entropy. The real-world has vast numbers of micro-states that we measure as effectively identical macro-states. But they are identical only in terms of the measured macro-properties.

        Importantly, given they are not identical at the micro-level, their future evolution can differ, despite the apparently identical macro-states. It’s very much chaos in action. Those micro-states can evolve chaotically.

        “What do you think of the response I gave in the post, or the one Peter and I discussed?”

        Maybe I didn’t get it, but I don’t understand how narrowing the scope really changes anything. A subset of a strictly determined universe is strictly determined, although the influences on its evolution may be outside the horizon. That just affects its appearance to us.

        For me it turns on that we will a future path and then take that future path. I don’t see how strict causal determination can account for that unless evolution went out of Her way to fool us.

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        1. I’m not seeing how epiphenomenalism is present here. I feel like I can continue typing this response, or take a break and get a drink. I’ll choose one or the other. But nothing I can see in that sequence, from the feeling, to the modeling of possible scenarios, to the threshold of neural firing leading to actual motor action, involves anything incompatible with deterministic steps playing out.

          I do agree that we can’t rule out quantum randomness “bleeding through” to the macroscopic level, but if so, it would be an infinitesimal thing, adding minute perturbations to a predominantly deterministic process already swamped by other perturbations. And again, randomness in and of itself, adds nothing meaningful in terms of actual free will. As I noted in the post, it actually subverts it.

          “That just affects its appearance to us.”

          But wasn’t your argument above based on our feelings about it, inherently a subjective impression? If we can account for that impression, for the appearance that leads to it, it seems like we’ve explained the feeling without needing any changes to our scientific understanding of things.

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          1. “But nothing I can see […] involves anything incompatible with deterministic steps playing out.”

            I’m saying, with large complex systems (of any kind), there are too many degrees of freedom for the system itself to be deterministic. The small individual steps, sure, but the aggregate, I believe, is a whole other matter.

            “And again, randomness in and of itself, adds nothing meaningful in terms of actual free will.”

            Randomness itself, I agree has nothing deterministic, that’s what makes it random. But in randomizing individual particle worldlines, it’s determinism that’s swamped out, thus allowing choice from the randomized field. Without the randomizing, there would be clear deterministic paths.

            “But wasn’t your argument above based on our feelings about it, inherently a subjective impression?”

            Those are two different things. Our analytical view of a subset of a determined system might appear undetermined, but of course it’s not. What I’m talking about is the subjective experience of deciding and having that decision alter the future.

            That we “feel” we have free will has nothing to do with horizons of our perception, because free will could be true or false either way. It has to do with whether one really could choose otherwise if reality were rewound to the “choice” point. Our abiding impression is that we could.

            Whether free will really exists or not depends on whether that impression is correct. My question is: why would evolution give us that impression if it were false? An answer related to one explanation of consciousness itself is: That’s just what being a fully determined machine feels like.

            But I’m not convinced something as complex as a human is a fully determined machine.

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  8. I think you’ve got this stuff right Mike. One minor clarification that I’m sure you agree with, is that the responsible agent tends to manipulate other agents to their own purposes. And this doesn’t simply concern the moulding of irresponsible agents, like children and pets. There are countless ways in which we try to influence each other, and well beyond forums such as this one.

    One addition that I’d add to your platform is formal criteria for what we determinists call “freewill”. You touched upon my own answer for a moment with Wyrd when you said, “I think we have the feeling of free will because we live in a world where we don’t know what’s going to happen, where we’re forced to make bets all the time in order to survive and flourish.”

    So let’s formalize that position. Freewill exists as a product of our ignorance about what causes specific choices to be made. This is to say that in a perfectly determined world (or no magic), we can still coherently judge ourselves and others in positive and negative ways, to the extent of our ignorance about what causes agents to choose as they do. But theoretically the “good” and “evil” that we see from our tiny perspectives, evaporates as our understandings grow. Thus from a perfect vantage, everything would unfold just like a prerecorded movie never deviates. From here no one is good or evil in an ultimate sense, though it’s quite fitting for us to judge each other this way from our tiny perspectives.

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    1. Thanks Eric.

      On manipulating others, definitely, and I think the same standard applies. A child may manipulate me by their innocent behavior, but can’t be held responsible for the results of that manipulation, because they don’t have the necessary capacity yet to foresee those results. But if I, on the other hand, manipulate someone in a way where I could reasonably foresee the consequences, then I do bear at least some responsibility for those consequences. The awful case of one teen encouraging another to commit suicide comes to mind.

      I do agree that ignorance plays a role. In a fully deterministic universe, what I’m going to type next is already set, but I myself don’t know what that result will be, leaving me still needing to actually balance my desires and foresight to the best of my ability in deciding what to actually type. (And sometimes to regret those decisions.)

      And complexity ensures that our ability to cash out that determinism will always be limited. Even if strict determinism is false, for purposes of this discussion, the barrier of complexity renders it irrelevant. It would only make a difference for something like Laplace’s demon.

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      1. So this is what it’s like for us to be in agreement on one of your posts, eh Mike? We’re each right about this and so there’s nothing spicy left to say? Well tell me this. Do you know of anyone prominent who says that “free will” (and thus good/evil), exist as a function of human ignorance? I believe that this is considered one of many supposedly intractable quandaries in philosophy, but reject them all. So beyond you and I, who else agrees? That’s what I consider needed for progress in general. I believe that community of respected professionals must exist which is able to develop various accepted understandings from which to help scientists do their various jobs.

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        1. Eric,
          Agreement, when it exists, is nice, but I’ve always found the conversations where there is disagreement more interesting, a better test of our ideas.

          In that spirit, a few thoughts.

          I don’t think it’s just ignorance, but the reduced scope of our concern. In that sense, I may know that a criminal comes from a troubled family and low socio-economic background. I may have full and complete knowledge of that. But if they are threatening me or those I care for, from my perspective, they’re going to be bad.

          I may not think they’re evil in some absolutist sense, but then that absolute sense of good and evil only really makes sense within some kind of theological framework, none of which I find compelling.

          I did conclude a while back that an appeal to ignorance is part of the overall libertarian free will intuition. But I’m not aware of anyone prominent making that case.

          All that said, free will remains a definitional quagmire, with people often arguing past each other with differing definitions. It’s one reason why I focused on social responsibility in the post. That’s still amorphous, but not nearly as much as free will.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Mike,
            I think you know that I love those Hank Green videos!

            The issue here concerns one of several that I consider eminently addressable. Apparently for naturalists there is no free will ontologically, though it does exist in an epistemic capacity. Such “free will” will be perceived to the extent that we’re ignorant of what causes a given agent to decide what it decides. Thus it certainly does make sense to “blame” people for being good/bad, that is to the extent of our ignorance about what causes them to behave exactly as they’re compelled to. (And of course it makes no difference if something actually is “evil”, or just dangerous, for us to try to protect ourselves from it.)

            If no prominent person has ever gotten credit for this particular position, as seems to be the case, then this brings an opportunity for nobodies like us to improve a field that seems to be in desperate need of improvement.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. Eric,
            On naturalists, I think it depends on how you define “naturalist”. A lot of people who accept that label consider themselves to be compatibilists. I’m one of them. I have no problem using the phrase “free will” to refer to someone capable of the three capabilities I list in the post. Of course, this is a different version of free will, with a different scope of freedom, than the libertarian / theological version, which I don’t think exists, or as noted in that older post, is even coherent.

            On improving the field, I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. People have been arguing about this for thousands of years. I’ve done my part with my little posts.

            Liked by 2 people

          3. I don’t mind the “compatiblist” label either Mike. I can even call myself a “soft determinist” if I must. Yes I can go “squishy” if needed. But what I won’t back down from is that you and I believe something here which seems quite sensible, and yet over thousands of years of philosophy the field seems not to have proposed and assessed our position. Thus we keep hearing the hopeless George Ellis sort of perspective from your post.

            I don’t exactly know why it is that philosophers continually fail in so many ways, but I am saying that if any of them would like to do something beyond “art appreciation”, that various general agreements will be required in their field. And as you know, my position on “free will” concerns the very least of my own such proposals.

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          4. I think philosophy’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t have the reality checks science and engineering contend with. Which is why philosophers can’t even agree whether philosophy makes progress. Personally, I do think philosophy can clarify our intuitions and questions, and come up with hypotheses. In that sense, it can make progress. But certitude based on that is just ideology. Reliable knowledge requires the reality check.

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          5. Right Mike, empirical reality checks have helped ground scientists, though philosophers, not so much. But what if modern scientists now tend to fail given the failure of philosophy? If modern scientists need effective principles of metaphysics, and epistemology, and axiology from which to do science, then doesn’t this doom science as well?

            I for one am more hopeful. I believe that a new breed of philosopher will emerge which is only concerned about reaching agreement regarding effective principles from which to practically do science. You and I are agreed regarding the concept of free will in a determined universe. Why? Because it makes sense, both empirically and otherwise.

            Beyond that, for this new breed of philosopher I propose my naturalistic metaphysics, my epistemology regarding the essential method of science and nature of definition, and my amoral form of axiology. Without such a premise from which to build (whether mine or an improved version), science remains constrained, and visible most in its mental and behavioral forms. These should be mere growing pains however for a four century old adolescent. Science should end up straightening out philosophy, and for the sake of science.

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