Free will and social responsibility

Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett have a new book out: Just Deserts: Debating Free Will. Michael Shermer, in a recent podcast, hosted both of them in a debate, which I just finished listening to. Ed Gibney, on his blog, also links to a review he wrote on the book, as well as posting additional thoughts about it.

Just to be clear, I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t. Not because I don’t have a lot of respect for the views of either Caruso or Dennett. It’s just that, similar to the existence of God, I perceive that this is a very old debate, one where truly new arguments are rare to non-existent. From what I’ve seen in reviews and the podcast debate, the book might be useful for anyone still on the fence for this issue, but doesn’t particularly seem to break new ground.

Myself, I’ve posted my views on this many times. I’m more in Dennett’s camp than Caruso’s. But I think it’s worth noting that there are two issues here that often get conflated. One is the question of metaphysical libertarian free will. The other is the question of what our social mores and legal policies should be.

On the metaphysical libertarian front, there’s no disagreement between Dennett and Caruso, or among most philosophers and scientists in general. Libertarian free will is the idea that the mind is not constrained by the laws of physics in its decision making capabilities. Unless you hold to some variety of interactionist substance dualism, which modern science seems to leave little room for, that sort of free will doesn’t exist.

Many try to rescue it with the randomness of quantum mechanics, but if I can blame my actions on the fully deterministic laws of physics, there’s no reason I can’t equally blame them on laws that include randomness. It’s worth noting that quantum randomness isn’t a free for all. It still evolves according to well established laws. At best, it makes our decisions less predictable. But from a practical standpoint, even in a fully deterministic clockwork universe, the actions of agents with unique genetics and a lifetime of experiences are already effectively unpredictable, at least with any degree of certainty.

The existence or non-existence of libertarian free will might have some bearing if there is a cosmic judge who decides our fate in an afterlife. But it seems to have little bearing in the far messier and pragmatic world of social customs and legal practices. Here we get to the second issue. The two might seem related, but to me, it’s a bit like noting that life doesn’t exist in fundamental physics and taking that to mean that life isn’t worth living, essentially a type of category mistake.

What seems to matter more at the social level is whether responsibility remains a coherent and useful concept. I think it does. All that’s needed to hold an agent responsible for its actions is that it have the capability to override its impulses in light of foreseeable consequences. This is a social contract of sorts. If you can control yourself, you gain certain freedoms in society. If you violate that contract, you may not only lose that freedom, but face punishment, part of which is meant to dissuade others from similar violations.

That doesn’t mean the punishment has to be barbaric, that it can’t take into account our lack of libertarian free will. There are many good arguments for a less harsh penal system, similar to what the Scandinavian countries have. As Dennett mentions in the podcast debate, no one thoughtful is talking about torturing criminals. But as Caruso also mentions, most free will skeptics are open to consequentialist derived punishment.

It leaves the real differences between the two camps very narrow, possibly to the point of only being about semantics, of whether we should retain the phrase “free will.” People who are eager to bury the concept of the metaphysical libertarian (and theological) version of free will, often want the phrase removed from our social and legal discourse. But given how thoroughly it is seeped into law, it might be more pragmatic to find a more, well, pragmatic definition along the lines I described above.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

83 thoughts on “Free will and social responsibility

  1. I am unlikely to read the book for the reasons you mention. I don’t agree with Dennett’s compatibilist position.
    But I agree with you and others that the penal system really needs to change in light with what we know now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mak. I might be inclined to check out the book if my reading list wasn’t already growing uncontrollably.

      I know you’re in the incompatibilist camp. It does seem like there’s a lot to be said for focusing on the practical side. What do we actually think needs to be changed? That seems more likely to be fruitful than whether the term “free will” remains productive.


      1. Nietzsche said, and I tend to agree, that punishing someone not for their own sake but as a lesson to others is cruel. We should move away from retribution to rehabilitation, where possible, and where such is not possible to remove said person from society. The old way, exile, banishment or something, I don’t know.


        1. That might be Nietzsche’s opinion, but I think it’s ultimately necessary for a functioning society. And it’s not like the punishment is arbitrary if it’s meted out to someone who knew, or should have known the rules, but still violated them. I’m not saying there can’t be rehabilitation too, but the punishment part does serve a purpose.


          1. Mike, I think you misunderstood me. I nor Nietzsche isn’t saying people should not be punished but that the punishment should be for their own sake. To punish someone so that others can learn from him or her simply means, to me, you can as well do away with punishment and find a way to teach others.
            There is an address Clarrence Darrow gave to prisoners in a California jail, I think, you should check it out.


          2. Hi Mak,
            I do think I understood the point. Mine is that, unfortunately, teaching people the rules, while absolutely necessary, is often not sufficient. It’d be nice if seeing others punished wasn’t a necessary part of the equation, but anyone who’s ever been in a position of authority eventually learns what happens when it isn’t. It’s sadly human nature to figure out what can be got away with and what can’t.


          3. I am skeptical that the “punish to dissuade others” is as ineffective as some advocates claim. Example: The lefty District Attorney in San Francisco decided to basically ignore car burglaries in San Francisco. Magically, organized gangs of car burglars appeared and the rate skyrocketed.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. “Free will” is one of those terms where, if it comes up in a conversation, I feel the need to stop and ask how people are defining the term. The average person seems to assume we all mean the same thing by “free will,” but that’s not necessarily true, and that leads to plenty of miscommunication.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Definitely. One of the first things I ever wrote about it is all the varied meanings that get attached to that term. What do we mean by “will”? And what are we saying it’s free of? Similar to consciousness, it requires care to ensure we’re not just talking past each other.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m listening to the podcast right now. But it is too long, so I won’t listen to the whole thing.

    I generally like Dan Dennett’s take on this. I haven’t yet heard enough from Gregg to know how I feel about his view. I’m at around 30 minutes into the discussion, and thus far I don’t have any serious disagreements with Gregg.

    On libertarian free will: I see this as a kind of platonic idealist account of decision making. That can perhaps have its uses in philosophical discussions, but it is useless for the causal analysis of human decision making.

    On human decision making: As I see it, we make our choices pragmatically. Part of what goes wrong in free will debates, is an attempt to explain human choices in terms of logic and truth instead of explaining it in terms of pragmatics.

    On social responsibility: We greatly benefit by being members of a society, and we should pay it back. Or, more accurately, we should pay it forward by acting in ways that benefit others in society. This “pay it forward” attitude should be part of how we make our pragmatic judgements.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s a lot to be said for listening to these kinds of things at 1.5x speed, although it can take some getting used to. But it makes long conversations like this go by much faster. I listen to them on my walks, just pausing them at the end of each walk and picking them up again on the next walk.

      I agree about the pragmatism. On paying it forward, I think as a social species, most of us, to some degree, have an impulse to do that, by enforcing rules we perceive are right and proper. Dennett mentions that this reward and punishment dynamic shouldn’t be seen as an absolute, but as a pragmatic rule based mechanism for a broadly consequentialist approach. It’s not practical to be consequentialist on every decision, so we’re consequentialists on making the rules, but not on enforcing them, where the more primal impulses take over.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Re “What seems to matter more at the social level is whether responsibility remains a coherent and useful concept. I think it does. All that’s needed to hold an agent responsible for its actions is that it have the capability to override its impulses in light of foreseeable consequences. This is a social contract of sorts. If you can control yourself, you gain certain freedoms in society. If you violate that contract, you may not only lose that freedom, but face punishment, part of which is meant to dissuade others from similar violations.”

    Excellent! Well said. parsing out the various roles FW plays should help clean up very messy discussions about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. as Caruso also mentions, most free will skeptics are open to consequentialist derived punishment. It leaves the real differences between the two camps very narrow

    I don’t think it’s all that narrow, even when both sides agree that punishments should not be torture, but rather the minimum punishment necessary to encourage widespread law-following. If you don’t believe that people accrue deserts according to their history of action – Caruso’s official view – what’s to stop a state from punishing entire families when one member misbehaves? (There are some nation-states that seem to do this in practice.) You might get more deterrence per unit of punishment that way. But it seems unfair. Our society’s ethics diverges from utilitarianism or consequentialism at many points, and this is one of them.

    one where truly new arguments are rare to non-existent.

    Rare yes, nonexistent no. Recently a few philosophers, Jenann Ismael foremost among them, have noticed that physics doesn’t agree with people’s intuitive notions of time and causality. Once you sort out the differences, the free will “problem” evaporates into thin air, having been based on wrong intuitions. This of course moots the libertarian “solution” to the nonexistent problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a consequentialist would argue that punishing entire families, while having more deterrence, would have other adverse effects on society. But that’s one of the problems with consequentialism. People tend to take it to the point where it validates their pre-existing intuition, then stop. I can’t recall a good account, other than that match up with intuition, why it should stop there, rather than earlier or later. It makes the entire logical framework seem somewhat redundant.

      I think you’ve recommended that book before. Have you ever done a post summarizing Ismael’s points?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Carl Hoefer gives a nice review of her book. The second part of Ismael’s book (see the review) contains the new argument I’m such a huge fan of.

        My summary is given in Part 2 thru Part 5 of my free will post series. It’s the same basic argument as Ismael’s, but with some slightly different emphases, which I hope will make it easier to understand. Or maybe I should say that I try to make it harder for your intuitive ideas about causality to sneak back in, under the radar, at a crucial moment.

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        1. Thanks! That reminded me of the view. I’m not seeing the freedom claimed in it, but it might be that I just don’t get it yet.

          The review actually discusses that Ismael rejects premise two of the Consequence Argument:

          1. Dynamical determinism entails that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future.
          2. The past is not under our control.
          3. Laws of nature are not under our control.
          4. Our actions are entailed by the past and laws of nature.


          5. Our actions are not under our control.

          I agree with Hoefer that some of the logical steps seem shaky, although maybe I’d feel different if I read the book.

          My issue with the Consequence Argument, at least as laid out here, is the way 5 is presented. What do we mean by “our” and “control” in this statement? It seems to imply that there’s an epiphenomenal self caged and carried along for the ride. That the self makes no choices, that the laws of physics are chains forcing certain actions on it. But the self does make decisions. It’s just that the self’s desires, forethought, and decisions just are the physics evolving. The self is part of physics, not trapped by it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, this is a crucial point, that the self is part of physics.

            I just now noticed when you quoted Hoefer (who in turn quotes Ismael) that the variant of the Consequence Argument given here introduces unnecessary complications, due to the phrase “under our control”. The questions arises, do we mean “completely under our control” or “is at least somewhat dependent on our actions”? Say I reach out and touch you, and the first atom in my finger to bounce off your shoulder is a nitrogen atom. Was that under my control? Well, not in the sense that I can reliably decide which kind of atom will first touch what I am reaching toward. Nor the second atom, nor the third, and so on ad Avogadro’s numberiam. But it doesn’t follow from that, that touching you is not under my control – despite the undisputed fact that the collection of these atoms suffices to determine whether I touch you.

            Anyway, the point I am getting at is that there is a cleaner version of the Consequence Argument, which has the virtues of clarity and deductive logic, as in the conclusion actually follows from the premises. The premises are still wrong, but they are plausible, even intuitively gripping to macroscopic beings like us. And the conclusion of that argument is “no one ever had the ability to do otherwise than whatever they wound up doing.” But Ismael’s argument shows that the past is not entirely the master of the present and future. (Actually she has two arguments, one going back to Hume, but I’m ignoring that one because it’s harder to evaluate.) As Hoefer sums up:

            Physics does not make us marionettes on “iron rails” of compulsion running from the past through the present and into the future; these (mixed) metaphors in fact have no place in a clear view of what science has taught us about the world. Cause-effect relations do typically run from past to future, but they are not usually deterministic and are emergent regularities which are, moreover, partially perspectival and context-dependent.[2] The upshot is that physics does not force us to view ourselves as helplessly in the grip of the past facts plus physical laws.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m basically in your camp, Mike, and have nothing to add. But if anyone is interested in a respectable (neuro/genetics) scientist who is definitively in the anti-determinist camp, you should look up Kevin Mitchell (@WiringTheBrain on Twitter).


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks James. I follow Mitchell, both on Twitter and his blog. I’ve noticed the anti-determinist stance, but haven’t seen a good account on why he comes to that conclusion. (Admittedly, I haven’t mined his archives.)


      1. Thanks for the link. Just listened to it (so not gonna read the book). I predict Hawkins sees several parts of the elephant but misses a few.

        I predict cortical mini columns are the functional unit, sometimes grouped into columns (especially when hooked to sensory input), but I don’t think they work the way he says. He seems to think that any given column could potentially model every possible object simultaneously. Makes it hard to imagine what value you get by doubling the number of columns.

        Also, he talks like each column has its own grid cells, which contradicts Wikipedia at least.



        1. Yeah, I haven’t finished yet, but I’m further in than when I provided that link, far enough that I started remembering why I never followed up on this theory. He seems to attribute some relatively higher order processing to the columns. I’d need some pretty convincing evidence to accept it, and see enough other neuroscientists in the field buy into it, before I’m ready to spend too much time on it.

          I’m also just leery of words like “revolutionary” when talking about any theory. Usually if the author of a theory has to use those words, it’s because everyone else isn’t finding their idea to obviously be that.


  7. “Many try to rescue it with the randomness of quantum mechanics, but if I can blame my actions on the fully deterministic laws of physics, there’s no reason I can’t equally blame them on laws that include randomness.”

    I think you meant “can’t” both times, didn’t you Mike?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think so Eric. Although admittedly I could have written it without the double negative as, “if I can blame my actions on the fully deterministic laws of physics, I can also blame them on laws that include randomness.” Maybe I should have written it in that simpler fashion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess that revision makes my head hurt a bit less Mike.

        You know that I’m critical of Dennett given his long career of effective salesmanship. It’s not quite that I consider his ideas generally worse than standard, but rather that he’s so magnificently revered for dressing up the same sort of positions. I consider his popularity a demonstration of how softness in general provides skilled sales people like himself with opportunities to advance. You can’t get away with that sort of thing in physics, that is except in soft places like quantum mechanics (as displayed by Sean Carroll’s literal “many worlds”).

        In any case I have a simple argument from which to call myself a compatiblist, and from nothing short of Einstein’s ontological determinism. I’m not aware of any prominent person who makes the following claim:

        One may coherently be praised / blamed by an observer for their behavior, to the extent that the observer remains ignorant of that person’s situation.

        So here the most beloved and despised among us will never be ontologically responsible for what we do as mere products of our circumstances, though we may effectively be praised / blamed epistemically given how tiny a grasp one can be expected to understand about the motivations of another. Even a given person shouldn’t grasp his/her motivations all that well in some regards. Here we may indeed refer to others and ourselves in terms of “good” and “evil”, though merely in an epistemic rather than an ontological capacity. For potential validation, do our moral judgements not tend to moderate as we become more educated about what it is that creates both the people that we tend to consider “good” as well as “evil”?

        In the end what I think we’ll need is a respected community of professional metascientists (or those who define the parameters of science), who are able to reach agreement on matters such as this one. So philosophers would continue debating this specific issue forever, though I’d expect this other community to conclude something like “Yep, that’s our position…”, though spend the bulk of their time on to matters that are less straightforward.


        1. Eric,
          That seems to equate free will with unpredictability. And I think “remain ignorant of that person’s situation” radically undersells how much you’d have to know about a person to predict their decisions. (Something they themselves may not be able to do in some cases.) If we widen it to any system, that implies that any system for which we lack knowledge of its operations and influences, ends up having some kind of free will.

          Not that equating free will with unpredictability isn’t a very common move. It goes all the way back to the Epicureans, at least, who posited that atoms had a swerve, a random variance in their movements, which provided free will. I lean Epicurean on a lot of things, but I don’t tend to think they got this one right.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Mike,
            The argument is mainly meant to address human function, so let me first clarify that. Take any “good” or “evil” person that you like. Dan “wants to live in in a world where” we’re able to praise the good for their apparent selflessness as well as castigate the evil for making their wicked choices. I’m not quite depriving him of that desire, though I am clarifying that naturalism places this position ultimately in the role of an epistemic rather than ontological state. In the end we should all be considered self interested products of our circumstances, and thus any apparent goodness and/or evilness should evaporate as a given person’s circumstances are explained (not that such explanations should be expected, but still). Thus freewill should be considered to exist as a function of ignorance in the end.

            Beyond the human my argument seems less distressing rather than more. Other animals, or machines, or weather events, and so on, may intelligently be referred to as “good” or “evil” epistemically, though naturalism mandates them to all be praiseless and blameless in the end. Ontologically they should merely be considered good and bad in respect to a given goal.

            So to specifically get to your previous assessment of my position, I’m not saying that freewill ontologically exists as a function of ignorance, but rather that it does so epistemically. Furthermore it’s the epistemic realm that matters to us. Blaming and praising people for what they apparently choose to do, is quite a necessary element of our function.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a tricky one, Mike. Consider this passage you wrote: All that’s needed to hold an agent responsible for its actions is that it have the capability to override its impulses in light of foreseeable consequences. This is a social contract of sorts. If you can control yourself, you gain certain freedoms in society.

    It’s not a passage that computes logically I don’t think. Because if our choices are the product of a deterministic mechanism, then all your saying is that the mechanism may have competing valences that override an early impetus in some case or condition. But it may not hold for all cases or conditions. It’s not, in other words, a universal capability to override its impulses in light of foreseeable consequences. It’s simply whatever it is in that moment, when various valences assert themselves and the mechanism responds to what is dominant.

    But pragmatically I understand: we can strengthen the inhibiting factors at work in the mechanism by changing the foreseeable consequences. It’s like adjusting the volume on our speakers is all. At some point there is enough volume that the discomfort level in NOT inhibiting a particular choice is greater than the desire to make that choice. The issue of an afterlife and a judging God is really no different in practice, is it? It’s pretty much the same: offer the threat of a stick or the hope of a carrot to achieve some normalizing of behaviors.

    What makes the social contract and the threat of penalty work at all, is that it actually feels like we’re making choices. And this leads us to feel responsible for our actions. That’s not actually the case, but I wonder how any of this works without that sense of agency to which we’re responding, and the ability to empathize with others. Without those faculties–without the construct of a self and the sensations that attend the prevention of working to achieve the goals of that self–I don’t think the threat of a future punishment would accomplish very much.

    This may be a case where we can be right and wrong at the same time? Meaning we’re all telling ourselves a little lie about what’s really happening, but that’s okay because it’s actually necessary?


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll admit I oversimplified a bit with that statement Michael. In truth, what I meant is that the agent has a capability to simulate future scenarios, which may trigger additional competing impulses or affects, and can decide to inhibit the more immediate impulses it’s feeling in the moment. So it is a storm of impulses, but some of them are coming from imagine future scenarios, and those impulses can “win” against the more immediate ones.

      Obviously this doesn’t always happen. I ate some cookies earlier I probably shouldn’t have. The impulses from the imagine futured (me being more fat) weren’t enough to override the immediate ones. In the case of the law, this is recognized. That’s why there are different punishments for manslaughter as opposed to premeditated murder. It’s considered a less severe crime, although it’s still a crime, because society can’t afford to condone people losing control, even in situation were a reasonable person might.

      You could view it as us all telling ourselves a lie. But I prefer to view it as an emergent reality. Just as someone can say a table doesn’t exist, only a collection of atoms, we can say no one ever makes decisions and is ever right or wrong, it’s just physics unfolding. But a table is a pragmatic concept, one we held long before we knew about atoms. And decisions are also a pragmatic concept. In both cases, they’re emergent from lower level realities.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Mike. The difference between the table being a collection of atoms and the table just being a table is that there is no contradiction in the essential content of the abstraction–meaning there’s nothing about understanding the electromagnetic forces that hold the atoms together and provide resistance to plates and cups passing right through it in any way conflicts with the notion that it’s a bunch of old trees shaved and planed into shape. But the issue of free will is one in which I think it matters whether we’re right about this or not.

        It’s hard to see how it matters when I put an analytical or scientific hat on, because I recognize there is nothing I can say that will suggest how this matters. But if there is the sort of freedom Matti described, which I might describe alternately as a sort of creative freedom to evolve and transform the field of expressions through which we come into being, then our choices have lasting effects, and those effects can accrue to profound differences over time. Further, our choices might be different depending on how we viewed the context of our making them.

        I’m not able to explicate how I see this occurring… but I sense that at some level there is maybe just one fundamental choice we have. It’s a choice about whether or not to choose, in a sense, which may sound silly. But I have this sense that most things and most people run along deterministic pathways unless they act otherwise. In a sense it’s like suggesting the railroad tracks are laid out, but certain states of wakefulness, love, and desire produce moments of switching tracks. And I think this is one thing indigenous cultures understood quite well. To shift tracks is not easy, really. It requires the cultivation of the resources that make such shifts possible, and those are resources of consciousness.

        In a sense I think we are each “charged” with certain desires and proclivities and these are aligned with a particular deterministic path unless a transformation occurs. But I do think the switching between tracks is possible. To measure this is no different from trying to measure the posited realities of the MWI. You can’t do it because even at the juncture between diverging tracks there is a deterministic trail that seems to remain.


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        1. Hi Michael,
          I actually don’t see a contradiction between physics and free will, but that’s coming at it from a compatibilist perspective. A lot depends on exactly what type of freedom we’re talking about. Do we mean freedom from the influences of the world? If so, then we don’t have that. But I think we do have freedom over our immediate situation and habits.

          Although as you note, it’s a freedom that requires work and often isn’t exercised. To some degree, that’s adaptive. If we mulled over every decision every day we’d be a mess. Our brain allows us to habitualize routine decisions, which we reach the point of making unthinkingly. Ideally we’d snap out at the right points and switch tracks, as you describe it, but it does take extra energy, and so often doesn’t happen.

          It also requires being aware of other alternatives. Even being creative here requires at least some exposure to a wide variety of possible alternatives. The more of this we have, the wider the scope of our freedom, I think. Someone with a very narrow world view will have limited freedom to move beyond it. Someone exposed to a wider array of ideas will have a broader scope of freedom.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike,

            So, I don’t agree with the widest possible or perhaps libertarian notion of free will, which suggests that the network of relationships in which we abide is irrelevant to what we might choose, and that we can choose anything at all at any given time. And I agree that our awareness of possible choices plays heavily into things.

            But I’m trying to understand how you merge the notion of possessing a “freedom” over your immediate situation and habits and the deterministic physics? All I can imagine is this thing taking place in your mind where the physics and the freedom become so compatible and mutually reinforcing that they just sort of dissolve intellectually into this singularity, and it’s all good. And at some level I could get on board with that. But are you really suggesting it’s a two way street, and the bottom-up (reductionism) and the top-down (an agency, let’s say fabricated as an evolutionary imperative) are approximately equal and in some way in relationship with one another? Does that question make any sense?

            I guess what I’m saying is, how can one possess a freedom over a certain range of choices if the physics says he or she could never have chosen otherwise? Isn’t the sensation of agency simply a non-causal artifact, or effect, of the deterministic processes at work?


            Liked by 1 person

          2. Hi Michael,
            I think you over interpreted what I said about freedom over the immediate situation. Or maybe I was misleading in the way I put it.

            I actually didn’t say anything about freedom over the physics. Our mental states are a complex cached state of our evolutionary and individual life history. We don’t have freedom over that history. Indeed, it’s meaningless to even talk about having freedom over it, because we’d be talking about having freedom over ourselves.

            But the cached state of that history and associated functionality, our self, does have freedom over the immediate situation it’s in, as well as its own habitual and reflexive reactions. It’s not an absolute freedom, but it is a freedom, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed. It’s a greater freedom than a child has, or a non-human animal, because they have far less of an autobiographical self to draw on. Put another way, it’s a freedom to channel causal forces outside of that immediate situation. (Unless you include brain states as part of that situation.)

            Again, if you’re looking for freedom from the world, including all of physics, then I don’t see it. But since we, the self that is us, is a subset of the world, that would amount to us being free of ourselves. Is that even a coherent notion? Even if we imagined there was an aspect of ourselves beyond the world, that self would never have freedom from itself, would it?

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Understood, Mike. Appreciate the examples.

            What you’re describing as greater freedom is, in essence, a richer correlation-set within the physics ultimately. But I hear you saying the physics always ultimately governs. And this probably gets into definitions, but how is that an actual freedom to select, (notably, from a discrete range of possible choices informed by our histories, memories, etc.)? If it boils down to the physics, there is no actual choice involved, right? If you say the sensations that attend the physics ARE the choice, which I think is consistent with your views that consciousness is, in essence, what the physics IS, then you’re use of the word freedom and my use of the word freedom are different. That’s like saying the path of a bouncing ball is what it chooses, and the physics are not simply consistent with the choice, but the choice is in essence what the physics ARE.

            Now maybe I think in a way very similar to you, but the trappings of my thought system are different. When you say that we can “channel causal forces outside of the immediate situation” what I understand you to be saying is that because of the mechanisms of memory and correlations that may have developed between this moment and other similar moments we may have encountered, either directly or indirectly, the final choice may have causative factors related to experiences we had many years ago, etc. I agree that this could be contained in the physics. It’s still not a freedom as I would describe it, but practically speaking it feels like a freedom.

            I further believe in moments of grace, and these would be the moments that allow the transitioning between tracks I mentioned above. But I could put these into a plausible physics terminology–I think, though I’m not sure of my footing here–and suggest that what appears as a moment of grace is a present is a backwards traveling wave from the future. Isn’t there a QM interpretation that involves backwards and forwards traveling waves? I know that’s a stretch, but I’m trying to suggest there could even be a mechanism for an inflection point that breaks the forward marching train of deterministic evolution.

            That said, a really interesting, muddy, difficult question is whether every decision is caused by what we presently understand as physics, or simply correlated to the physics. I believe absolutely in the correlation. I just don’t believe that the physics as we understand it today is the sole cause. This isn’t freedom from the world, Mike. And it’s not freedom from ourselves. I’m not thinking there are rational cases for those notions. This is, for me, about the viability of grace–for moments that take the exact same data we have stored as memory and history, but reframe the perception of it. The physics are identical, but the meaning has shifted. And this shift in meaning enables new deterministic pathways. The same data can mean very different things depending on the perception, and so I guess at a fundamental level I’m suggesting the manner in which perceive is not exclusively etched in flesh.



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          4. Hi Michael,
            A large part of the free will debate does seem definitional. What kind of freedom are we talking about? What are the constraints that might deny that freedom? And what is being denied? Does a system’s innate inability to do something count as a constraint on its freedom? And finally, what is being constrained?

            Consider a robot lawnmower, programmed to cut a full acre area. However, it’s put in a quarter-acre yard surrounded by a fence. It’s collision detection mechanisms cause it to avoid crashing through the fence. So it’s hemmed in, constrained by the fence. Now consider a second identical robot, but left to cut a large open field. It seems like the second robot has something the first robot lacks. We could say it has more “freedom”, and it would be a case where no one doubted the physics ruled completely.

            Now consider a robot only programmed to mow the lawn vs another one programmed to do a wide variety of tasks, including mowing, which it can autonomously select according to various conditions. Does the second robot have more freedom? Or more capabilities or versatility?

            Now, consider an animal, whose brain operates according to the laws of physics. It has no capability to exceed those laws. Is it lacking freedom? If so, what is the difference (in terms of freedom constraint) between it and the robot that can only mow the lawn?

            The cause vs correlation discussion seems to get into the same territory as intrinsic properties discussed in the structuralism post. If it is the case, how could we ever know? And, from a parsimony perspective, if the apparent causes seem to explain the facts, why should we entertain that these aren’t the real causes and that there are other hidden ones?

            Liked by 1 person

          5. Hi Mike,

            A number of things come to mind reading this. The first is that in your descriptions of various robots (and animals) it seems you are describing various “state spaces” the robot system could occupy, where a state space in this context is just the space consisting of all possible states the robot could potentially inhabit. It could be in various positions in the yard, doing different things, moving at different velocities, have different battery charge states, be in different weather conditions, etc. By changing the size of the yard, or the complexity of the robot, the size of the state space changes, and if I follow your logic, one definition of freedom is that it is equivalent to the volume or size of this state space.

            This is not the definition I would personally use of free will, though. While this approach has a great deal to do with quantifying what “free” might mean, it says nothing at all about the “will” part, except that the notion is moot perhaps. While I agree from a certain perspective there’s not much to question in this description about how the physics relates to the scope of the state space for a given robot or organism in a given environment, it says very little about the transformations that may occur within that space—e.g. how the robot and perhaps even the robot-environment system is allowed to move from one state in the space to another.

            The question that will be debated for another several eons and through the end of our civilization and whatever comes after probably, is whether or not any robot or organism possesses the freedom to will, or choose, from the abbreviated array of points in state space that may be accessed from the present point, which it will move to. We often tend to think of this from the perspective of discrete, independent entities and not from the perspective of unity which I have suggested also exists. When we think this way we are obliged to think that free will means the robot or organism has the autonomy—e.g. the freedom of will—to choose from the array of possible alternatives the one it desires, and the question in this context is what really constitutes a choice. If the robot or organism, as is asserted, is entirely described by the deterministic physics of its construction, then there is no will involved, except perhaps as the sensation, or visceral feedback, in those systems complex enough for the deterministic physics to produce such. There is no action that is not either pre-determined (or perhaps just random), in a sense, and so for me there is no choice from this perspective.

            But if unity is real, there is another way to think of free will, and that is as the freedom that derives from the fact that no system is truly closed. In other words, there exists a relationship of everything we can imagine to this underlying field of wholeness, or unity, and because the deterministic physics operate or reside on this underlying unity, no discrete system is truly or completely deterministic all the time. As I noted before, I’m not sure it would be possible to find breaches in the deterministic processing because the system still moves to one of the available states accessible from the present, but moments of unity or widespread correlation could influence what occurs.

            In this notion of free will, I’m suggesting that the actual “will” part of what we might call free will is derived from the extended or perhaps transcendent relationship of any part to the whole. These moments in which what we classically see as a discrete system, e.g. the robot, are spontaneously and perhaps instantaneously only describable as “robot + X”—where much like an entangled state in physics, it is meaningless to speak of the robot in isolation. There literally is no such thing as “just the robot” for this instant, and “choice” takes on a new meaning in light of the extended system. When this occurs the “choice” may proceed from a cause that is not wholly contained in the robot itself.

            The symmetry breaking that comes from “observation” creates a temporary separation again, reducing the robot to the singular object of our perception, and determinism proceeds happily along. When I wrote above somewhere that my hunch or intuition that we only really have one choice, this is, in a sense, what I meant—this choice to access or be accessed by the greater web of relationships that exist in unity. It is all but impossible to speak of unity in the context of our current modes of perception without running across paradox, but at the level of the human I might say that the choice to allow or disallow these moments of “human + X” to occur—moments of grace I’ve called them—is the fundamental choice we have. The paradox is that if I’m saying novel choices come from moments of wholeness, then how can we ever have the freedom to allow or disallow these moments to occur? And the answer, which I understand is paradoxical, is that we never truly exist independent of this unity. So even when we disavow this reality, and our experience returns the evidence of “what it is like” to be separate, the separation is occurring only at a particular level. There remains forever and always the unalterable reality of unity, and a thread of access to the choice to allow, or not, these moments of “human + X” to arise in our lives.

            You’ve asked why a person may entertain or consider that such seemingly hidden causal-connections exist at all, on the grounds of parsimony, etc. To be honest, I think it’s the one freedom we have—to answer this question for ourselves—and it’s not my place to suggest that such a view is right for you or anyone else, or better or worse in a general sense. I do and probably have overstepped my bounds in this regard before, but for hopefully excusable flights of passion. So I’m not going to try and give a defensible answer to the question of why one should or shouldn’t consider this view because there isn’t one that any of us can really give another. There is only the freedom to choose and to partake of what we have chosen.


            Liked by 1 person

          6. Hi Michael,
            I like the idea of the size of state space, but that, by itself, isn’t my view. The causal factors that lead to various states, and the large variances in what those states can cause in a particular situation are also big parts. It seems like this resonates with your unity view. In other words, the large state space adds considerable variability to any situation where it is present, equivalent to the range of its possible states.

            Put another way, every entity is a causal nexus, always in interaction with other entities. One with a large state space, where the causal factors for its states range far wider than most systems, has degrees of freedom that most entities lack.

            On the definition of will, when these kinds of questions come up, I like to reach for quality dictionaries, like Merriam’s.

            2: DESIRE, WISH: such as

            where there’s a will there’s a way

            b: APPETITE, PASSION


            3: the act, process, or experience of willing : VOLITION


            There are numerous definitions, indicating this is one of those protean terms. Most beg the question for our purposes. But I think 2a is at the core of all of them: disposition or inclination. If we take that as the core of will, then this can be as primal as a reflex, or a reaction influenced by perception and predictions.

            So we can think of “free will” as dispositions or inclinations influenced and modified by a causal nexus with a wide scope in both time and space. This is a relative type of freedom, not an absolute one. This might be an alternate way of describing your transcendent relationship of any part to the whole?

            Although I don’t really consider these dynamics to be hidden, aside from whatever normal observational challenges might be present. If we’re talking about causes that are hidden in principle, ones we can either choose or not choose to believe in, it seems like we’re in unknowable metaphysics territory.

            I do agree that debates over free will show little sign of ending anytime soon.


          7. Well stated Michael, well stated. This separation you speak of is the quintessential intellectual expression of the notorious subject/object divide which essentially states: “There is me, that’s one thing; and then there is everything else, which is another thing.” Again, in isolation we view the subject/object divide as a metaphysics which it is, but at its core SOM is embedded into our DNA as a deterministic feature of reality that insures emergent systems run on a deterministic track with each system having a limited degree of self-determination within an otherwise deterministic architecture. This freedom ensures the emergence of novel systems with magnificently beautiful diversity.

            The emergence of this unprecedented experience we call human consciousness is an intersection in that deterministic track where a deliberate switching or transformation of that process can occur. You stated it best when you concluded:

            “I’m not going to try and give a defensible answer to the question of why one should or shouldn’t consider this view because there isn’t one that any of us can really give another. There is only the freedom to choose and to partake of what we have chosen.”

            Be at peace my friend


  9. I don’t know Mike; I think the entire notion of law is a an erroneous and misguided concept. It’s too outdated, Draconion, oversimplified and barbaric. A more noble and enlightened system of settling disputes would be to shit can the entire notion of control and settle for simply managing the chaos; where every decision in the administration of that system would be a negotiated settlement based upon the unique circumstances involved instead of the broad brush of the “rule of law”. We also need to get rid of this notion of justice. Justice a useless idiom that has no real meaning.

    As far as determinism is concerned, every system has a limited degree of self-determination within an otherwise deterministic system. Even the radioactive isotope U-235 experiences a limited degree of self determination; that is why physics is unable to predict with any accuracy when the next neutron will jettison the nucleus. Like it or not; just like our own destiny, U-235 will decay over time and eventually become lead.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s pretty radical Lee. How would you see this working? Who would have the authority to negotiate a settlement based upon the unique circumstances? Would we give it to police officers, or judges? Or are you thinking about something like what Athens had with a citizen democracy, where juries were 500 citizens? If so, what would you do about things like common biases and prejudices?

      Your second paragraph sounds like a panpsychism viewpoint, although if I recall you were looking at a slightly different viewpoint: causal sentientism?


      1. A world renowned sociologist once stated that in the history of civilization there has never been a single law created that deters a psychopath from breaking that law. The only thing that laws accomplish is making ordinary law abiding citizens criminals of the state. I’ll take radical any day over barbaric and draconian. Management 101: “Most people who get up in the morning want to do a good job.”

        An old friend of mine once told me that the American experiment will not fail because of a lack of resources, our civilization will fail due to a lack of leadership. Leadership is hard and real leadership does not faint when encountering difficulty. Management 102: We should structure the so-called rules of engagement based upon those few individuals who create chaos without impinging on the rights of the many; but again, that takes work and the work is just “too hard”.

        FYI…..I settled on pansentientism. The universe is deterministic and yet, because sentience is the underlying cause of motion resulting in the diversity of form every system has a limited degree of self-determination within an otherwise deterministic framework; the more complex the system, the greater degree of self-determination and the harder it becomes to make accurate predictions about that system.


        1. That, to me, seems a bit too black and white, thinking of people either as psychopaths or virtuous paragons. It seems like most people are somewhere in the middle along a spectrum between utterly selfish and complete altruism. Where a person falls on any particular day may be due to a lot of circumstances, both personal and public.

          I think a big part of effective leadership is helping people find the better angels of their nature, rewarding them when they do, and providing corrective action or support when they don’t.

          Pansentientism sounds like a good word for your view. It’s probably a better word for the views most panpsychists hold.


          1. The designation of panpsychism is a useless and misleading term because it is married to the ontology of mind whereas pansentientism is separate and distinct from mind and furthermore, sentience is the underlying property of matter designating what matter is in and of itself. Therefore, since all matter is sentient, there is no hard problem of consciousness for the ontology of pansentientism nor is there a combination problem since the system of mind is just another highly evolved complex material system. There is no “subjects of experience” in pansentientism, there are only systems. The hard problem of matter and the hard problem of consciousness are intrinsically linked and that link is sentience.

            Contrary to your own naive world view, the rule of law with its objective of control is a primitive and narrow world view, one that is massively repressive. My “radical” approach of chaos management is ferociously resisted by any and everyone with whom I discuss it. But once I outline in specific detail how chaos management works I always get the same response: “Wow, I never thought of it that way before and it makes alot of sense.” I’m not here to convince you of anything Mike nor am I interested in discussing it further.



          2. The question is whether there can be sentience without mind, but that hinges on the definition of “sentience”, and we’re as unlikely to resolve that here as the other topic. 🙂


  10. Just an FYI Mike………

    Sentience: noun
    A state of be-ing; the capacity to be aware of feelings and sensations; the experience of valences; non-conceptual representations of value experienced on a gradient from good to bad, positive (+) to negative (-) charges and the attraction of a force known as gravity. (Wikipedia)

    The word sentience was first coined by philosophers in the 1630s for the concept of an ability to feel; derived from the Latin word sentientem. The word sentience was established to distinguish the non-conceptual sensations of feelings integral to our own experience of consciousness from its counterpart, the conceptual processes of mentation, information processing, introspection and psyche (the Cartesian Me). In modern Western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience sensations such as pain, a numinous presence or the apex of a Zen Buddhist meditative state absent any semblance of cognitive processes. Sentience is a valence experience that is ontologically distinguishable from the non-valence experience of information processing and/or mentation because the term sentience is now directly correlated with the phenomenal state of qualia. Early philosophers recognized this difference and designated a term to express that distinction.

    The real question is this Mike: Would you own confirmational bias allow you consider a positive and/or negative charge to be a non-conceptual representation of value, one that point particles respond to without the presence of a mind to intellectual that sensation?


    1. Lee,
      I can see the reasoning that brings you there, but for me it’s too low level. Too much is missing. It’s why I talk in terms of hierarchies. I don’t think sentience exists until there is perception and initial value evaluations of the system of what is being perceived. Of course, electric charge is heavily involved in all that, but it’s also involved in a lot of other stuff.

      Sorry, I’m not a panpsychist or pansentientist.


      1. Yeah, perception is a conceptual representation of value which requires the system of mind whereas valences are non-conceptual representations which do not require the system be a mind. In our own experience of consciousness we have both. Those non-conceptual representations always come first in hierarchy. They are called reflexes, the likes of sitting on a hot stove. The hot stove is the quintessential empirical demonstration of this hierarchy. It is only after the low value non-conceptual representations created by sitting on that hot stove are mitigated through the reflexive actions of our biology that an articulation of the experience is later formed in our intellect through perception or introspection.

        One can disagree with the findings, but this hierarchy can be empirically demonstrated and is scientifically repeatable. Pansentientism: just remember, you heard the term first from me….

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I agree with you Mike that this is an old debate. Most of the arguments are very old. That, I believe, is an indication that it is, as yet, unresolved, if not unresolvable. I also share your disagreement with the hard determinists. I do not, however, agree with you regarding libertarian free will. At least I should say, I have not closed the door on it and continue to keep an open mind.

    I’m specifically referring to the freedom of self-formation, my freedom (and responsibility) to form the kind of person with the type character I have. It’s my understanding that is not a concept of freedom consistent with Dennett’s compatibilism. And I think this is part of what you call libertarian free will. I’m not referring to mere “second-order desires” that some more sophisticated compatibilists, like Harry Frankfort, discuss. I mean the freedom to form the will that determines our choices. Here I refer to the work of the philosopher, Robert Kane.

    I choose to believe that sort of free will does exist. The belief that it’s an illusion is a plausible scientific inference I grant you. But, I submit, our present understanding of the brain gives us no conclusive evidence one way or the other. So, at the present time my best argument, more of a critique I suppose, is that there is currently no conclusive evidence that such a deeper level free will is illusory. So, believing in the fallibility of knowledge, I choose to side with William James when he said; “At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that [my free will] is not an illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Matti,
      Actually, if you listen to the debate in the podcast, Dennett at one point does discuss the freedom to become the person we want to be, through all the decisions we make throughout our lives. But it’s worth noting the compatibilist version isn’t absolute. We can’t choose our innate tendencies. And we have to have opportunities to make those choices, so someone raised poor and in ignorance is simply going to have fewer choices available to them.

      I’m not a fan of regarding productive concepts as illusions, and I do view considering ourselves to be agents who makes choices a productive outlook. To be clear, I also think the laws of physics determine what we’ll choose, but we’re still choosing. To say otherwise is to confuse different levels of description. If we wait for the laws of physics to make those choices, nothing will happen. Knowing it’s just the laws of physics doesn’t help me make the actual choice. I have to weigh the options as best I can and make the best decision I can in terms of what I value.

      In my mind, that’s the only free will worth having.


      1. “To be clear, I also think the laws of physics determine what we’ll choose, but we’re still choosing. To say otherwise is to confuse different levels of description. If we wait for the laws of physics to make those choices, nothing will happen. Knowing it’s just the laws of physics doesn’t help me make the actual choice. I have to weigh the options as best I can and make the best decision I can in terms of what I value.”

        I have to say Mike, I am amused by your circular rationality; where at one moment you will (freely?) acknowledge that there is no such thing as the “laws of physics” and yet, you now insist that “the very laws of physics” (which do not exist) somehow commands or determines unwavering, unquestioning obedience from us as unknowing and unsuspecting subjects.

        The materialist’s perspective is epistemically naive, narrowly focused and quite absurd…….


        1. Lee,
          I’m not sure where I may have given the idea that I think the laws of physics don’t exist. I have discussed the Humean view before that they just refer to regularities. But I’m skeptical of the idea that they can only be regularities, that there’s not some kind of necessity for those regularities. Otherwise they become a miracle, which means the regularity view, to be true, would itself have to be a miracle. Calling those necessities “laws” is invoking a metaphor, but the metaphor is about something I think is real.

          If a view you disagree with seems absurd, yet a lot of intelligent people hold it, you should consider the possibility that you don’t yet understand it. A lot of people simply characterize panpsychism (or in your case pensentientism) as absurd, often because they haven’t taken the time to understand it. I’ve given you the reasons why I don’t accept that view, but I haven’t characterized it as absurd, because I do understand the reasoning that leads to it. In any case, the history of science has been repeated discoveries that reality is absurd, which makes calling something absurd a criticism with no teeth, at least for people familiar with that history.


        2. Be cautious Mike. It is relatively easy to dismantle panpsychism because it is untenable, as is materialism as it currently stands as well as the ontology of idealism itself. Nevertheless, nobody and I mean nobody has even heard of pansentientism before, let alone attempted to critique it. Properly understood, pansentientism is the only ontology that will resolve the mind/matter dichotomy within the framework of materialism. Idealism is a lost cause, so we don’t even need to go there….

          Continuing; if there is such a thing as this notion of “law”, then one has to account for this mysterious, ethereal “thing” that commands unwavering, unquestioning obedience from its unknowing, unsuspecting subjects. If one cannot account for it, then it just becomes another religious faith similar to idealism. If that sort of foolishness makes sense to a lot of intelligent people, then one is forced to redefine “intelligent”.

          Now, if you want to take the position that you don’t know the answer to the origin of this magical some thing called “law”, and that you couldn’t care less; then I can accept that position. But if you insist upon taking the “moral high ground” of its existence, then you better be ready, willing and able to defend it because I will not allow you to blow smoke up my derrière. ☹️


          1. Lee, I’m not out to either offend you or give false praise. But I’m not going to walk on egg shells either.

            There have been people who looked at something similar in terms of sentience. This guy for instance. His idea may not be the same as yours, but they seem in the same ballpark. (Or I’ve completely misunderstood your prior remarks, which is always possible.)


          2. I’m not offended Mike, I just find it annoying when a materialist such as yourself or an idealist for that matter make an assertion that cannot be defended; and forcefully asserting something just because you personally believe it does not make it so. This entire notion of law, be it the laws of God, the laws of nature or the laws of physics; this ethereal, magical some “thing” that commands unwavering, unquestioning obedience from it unknowing unsuspecting subjects is shear science fiction. It’s an ancient, primal, naive, and barbaric intellectual construction that’s weaved itself into the fabric of our DNA.

            The empirical evidence of science demonstrates regularities, but regularities is no grounds from which to make the quantum leap that those regularities are “caused” by laws. I watched the video, and Neil’s hypothesis is a variation of panpsychism even though he uses the world sentience. So yes, you do misunderstand my prior remarks because everything I write is filtered through your confirmational bias that there are only two possible versions of reality, and that reality has to fit within the paradigm of being either mind or matter.

            Furthermore Mike, I don’t expect you to understand nor am I naive enough to expect that you would be the least bit interested either. Religious conformational biases are a bitch my friend. The ontology of idealism and materialism in its current structure is a form of religion because it is based solely upon ignorance, reinforced by blind faith.


  12. Fascinating discussion, again. I can’t say I have any knock down arguments against compatibilism. I think, partly, because philosophers like Frankfort keep refining that slippery concept and moving the goal posts —with ideas like second-order desires—closer to what I see as libertarian free will. And you are quite right, we can’t choose a lot of things about ourselves and they constrain our choices, like my realization as a young man that I was not free to “choose” to play Major League Baseball! 🙂 I guess it’s my deep interest in ethics that pushes me to err, if I’m erring, on the side of a freedom (and responsibility) that permits me to form my own moral character. So, I choose to err on the side of libertarianism. Perhaps you and I are very close. And I do see dilemmas in choosing a broader concept of free will. But, like William James, I’ll linger on that side for now.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. How about my argument Matti? This is to say that we do indeed have freedom and thus responsibility regarding our behavior, though as a function of our ignorance. And since we humans generally remain quite ignorant about what’s happening in the end, we should thus be quite responsible for what we do. I discussed this above with Mike, but probably should have provided a practical demonstration of what this position effectively means.

      Consider a standard prank show. Here there’s often an elaborate set of actors out to convince someone that they’re in a lot of trouble for being offensive, stealing something, killing someone, or whatever. After the dupe has taken the bait and becomes amazingly distressed by the situation, it’s divulged that everything’s fine since this was actually just a televised prank.

      Notice that in this scenario the dupe believes that he’s/she’s freely choosing to do various things, though from the more informed prankster perspective the dupe is actually being manipulated by the things that they do. Thus my assertion that the dupe may consider him or her self free to the extent of his/her ignorance about what’s actually going on. If he/she did have the larger perspective of the prankster then of course the prank wouldn’t work, though in normal life there’s always larger and larger perspectives about what’s happening that none of us can have. So it seems to me that there’s plenty of room for freedom and thus responsibility in normal life, since the world itself is well beyond us, though technically this responsibility should be considered to exist as a function of ignorance. From a theorized perfect perspective there’d simply be causality without freedom (that is unless magic enters the picture). So here I speak of an ignorance well beyond standard inability to grasp brain function.

      I consider William James entirely correct to use his first act of free will to believe that he has free will. I have no reason at all to doubt his belief. Furthermore my own belief is the same, though technically as a function of my vast ignorance about how things are.


      1. Eric,

        As a Cartesian Me as well, I would consider myself loathsomely ignorant and laking any semblance of free will to be anything other than ignorant if I felt that my own experience of sentience was exceptional and that all of the other systems that make up this vast physical universe including my own biology were somehow, some way not themselves sentient as well. Then by my own ignorant self-determination (if I have it?) I would have to rely exclusively on magic to explain myself; either that, or live in a make believe world of (my own choosing?) in my own head??..

        In a totally deterministic universe are we forever condemned to be ignorant or can we “freely” switch tracks at the correct intersection of life to find another way. Though I do not like to admit it, I feel that Michael Mark may just have it right with his closing comment: ☹️

        “In a sense I think we are each “charged” with certain desires and proclivities and these are aligned with a particular deterministic path unless a transformation occurs. But I do think the switching between tracks is possible. To measure this is no different from trying to measure the posited realities of the MWI. You can’t do it because even at the juncture between diverging tracks there is a deterministic trail that seems to remain.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lee,
          Earlier here you gave your position and then regressed to, “I’m not here to convince you of anything Mike nor am I interested in discussing it further.” By this point however you seem to be having tremendous fun! Now you’re telling me that if only I were to accept your pansentientism that I wouldn’t be ignorant of the incredible ontological dynamics that presumably control all of existence. All viable sales pitches need to offer a worthy gift I suppose.

          In any case I don’t see that your proposal explains anything. I’ve got no problem beginning from the premise that “there is something it is like” to exist as the sun, my house, a proton, or anything else. Though funky as hell to me, I can begin this way for the sake of considering what it means. But what would this explain? If there were nothing it is like to be my house, would it function differently than it actually does? Would the pipes not hold water? Give me something tangible about how things shouldn’t function as they do in our world without sentience.

          Where I think I once got you, as well as Luke Roelofs over at Schwitzgebel’s, is if everything is sentient then how might anesthesia take human sentience away? Each of you answered something like, “Well that would be a different kind of sentience which can be eliminated, unlike the sentience of all else.” Right…

          Or it could be that there’s a certain kind of physics by which sentience becomes causally created. So this would sometimes be produced by means of a sentient creature’s brain, and the right drugs causally interfere with the associated physics. My money’s on certain neuron produced electromagnetic fields as the right kind of physics.

          Apparently if experimentally verified then Mike would admit that he was wrong about the standard “information converted into other information” explanation. But what about you? What would you say if scientists were able to effectively alter a person’s sentience through a brain implanted transmitter that does nothing more than produce EM radiation mimicking the kind that’s produced by synchronous neuron firing?


          1. “Well that would be a different kind of sentience which can be eliminated, unlike the sentience of all else.”

            That wasn’t my statement Eric. Everything is a system dude and systems are destroyed, put to sleep, rebuilt using the same raw materials and awakened. I just don’t see a problem.

            “…if everything is sentient then how might anesthesia take human sentience away?”

            The same way the sleep cycle takes human sentience away, the same way death takes human sentience away. The biology of the brain shuts down the system from which the quantum Cartesian Me emerges. That is, unless you are an idealist. According to those dudes you are always conscious and awake, it’s just that you don’t remember. How convenient.😀

            “Give me something tangible about how things shouldn’t function as they do in our world without sentience.”

            Magic Eric, magic. David Copperfield, that’s about as tangible as it gets, and that is the only other alternative. The very notion of this thing called LAW is magic dude. If sentience is universal then sentience would be fundamental in explaining motion which results in form not this silly notion that there is this magical, mystical some “thing” that COMMANDS unwavering, unquestioning obedience from its unsuspecting, unknowing subjects.

            We’ve been so conditioned by our immediate culture that it’s pathetic, seriously. Our modern scientific and secular culture is a church in its own right, and that church has a bewitching and influential sway over the minds of its members. We all get spoon fed by the priesthood, we do not think for ourselves. We rely upon the clergy to do the thinking for us and then WE DECIDE whether to agree or not. Cool, isn’t it!!!! The name of the game is the same, the only difference is a matter of scope. And as loyal, faithful church members, we will collectively stand up against any and all heretical ideas that do not conform to our confirmational biases unless those ideas are handed to us from authority figures that we’ve been conditioned to respect. And for whatever reason, we admire and respect those individuals whose profession is adult daycare or academia.

            It’s like I told the idealists over at Bernardo’s blog, idealism is a religion and personally I don’t have a problem with religious freedom of choice, but call it what it is. They all got a little saucy about it, but at the end of the day they were all willing to admit that idealism is indeed a religion. Now materialists, that’s another story. They are much more unwilling to admit that their faith of materialism is a religion. They get down right hostile but hey, we all need to grow up, quit sucking our thumb, getting easily offended and call it for what it is.

            Be at peace my internet friend for once again, I’ve over stayed my welcome….

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,

            You’ve got to keep this on the up and up, but I just heard that Kim Kardashian was on Sean Carrol’s podcast and that she believes in MWI. Can you believe it…… I mean Kim Kardashian of all people. So, if Kim Kardashian believes it then MWI must be true right? I mean, how can anyone argue with that…

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Okay Lee, you’re happy with your church and I’m happy with mine. May the best win, (though obviously yours is currently way way behind mine).

            On Carroll allegedly taping an interview with Kim Kardashian, now that would be a bold move! Surely there’d be no potential for that to hurt her career, but what about him? Would his standard followers feel self conscious given that people like me accuse him of mainly being a smooth salesman? Maybe, but I suspect that he’d come out ahead anyway. He has lots of people who are quite respected on his podcast as well, which probably rights things for them. This might be a great opportunity for him to become far more popular than he is today, and even if it helps validate critics like myself.


      2. Eric, William James, I think correctly, noted that the issue of free will is insoluble on mere psychologically grounds. And determinism is simply not pragmatically useful as well as counter-intuitive. His argument for free will is over a century old and certainly subject to some contemporary criticism. But his conclusion (in that famous quote of his) is pure pragmatic wisdom and quite compelling for me. I’ve always had bigger intellectual fish to fry and thus only occasionally dip into this knotty issue. Even though I’m not squarely in the Pragmatism club, I’m happy to go my merry Jamesian way on this issue. I’m glad you like James too; perhaps like me as only a temporary holding position on the matter. Thus, I’ll take a pass at trying to critique your argument. I want to stay collegial, especially on a subject where I am very much a dilettante.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No worries Matti, I remember your concern that science is trying to illegitimately take over philosophy. Thus I wouldn’t expect you to believe that there’s a good answer which could put this ancient philosophical quandary to bed, let alone one that I personally have developed. Conversely I believe that science needs various generally accepted conceptions of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to improve, and so it should need a respected community of professionals whose sole purpose is to develop communally accepted answers. Perhaps these people could be referred to as “meta scientists” if this helps preserve traditional philosophy?

          I mainly presented the scenario above to potentially help people grasp what I’m referring to, or how presumed freedom should vanish through larger and larger perspectives in a natural world. I do think James was right that this isn’t a scientific matter. Instead it’s metaphysical.

          Wyrd seems to grasp this by theorizing that the human brain might be our world’s exclusive non-deterministic thing. (No other creatures’ brains Wyrd?) In any case, yes worldly causal dynamics would surely need to fail for true freedom to exist in any capacity. Given that this violates my own brand of metaphysics however I simply observe that sentient entities may effectively consider themselves “free” to the extent of their ignorance about what’s destined to happen. I don’t know of any prominent theorist who’s made this connection.

          In any case I don’t considered this to be a temporary holding position. Instead I think it will become one of many final answers for future meta scientists.


          1. “(No other creatures’ brains Wyrd?)”

            Possibly other creatures with sufficiently advanced brains, too, but I can only speak for my human experience and, by presumed extension, other humans. There does seem a notable gap between humans and all other animals we know.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,

            “I remember your concern that science is trying to illegitimately take over philosophy.” You remember well Eric. And I believe it’s time to come clean a bit more on where I stand.

            I was drawn to this blog because it gave me a chance to explore arguments from an ontological point of view different from my own. It also explored issues in the philosophy of mind and consciousness—a side interest of mine. Moreover, the host appeared to a patient man willing to engage in fair open-minded debate. By the way, that last item is a rarity on social media and most blogs as you no doubt know.

            I mentioned ontology. Mike, our host, and many on this blog appear to favor a materialistic and thus, from my perspective, a minimalist ontology. That is, a science oriented ontology. In the famous words of the philosopher, Willard Quine, who likewise favors a minimalist ontology, anything more “offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes…” Quine, by the way, was Dan Dennett’s undergraduate thesis advisor at Harvard.

            In opposition to Quine (and Dennett) I tend to favor a point of view nicely articulated by the philosopher William C. Wimsatt and others. And in direct response to Quine, Wimsatt argued for “a philosophy for messy systems, for the real world, for the “in-between” and for the variegated ecologies of reality… [this] is ontology for the tropical rain forest.”

            I’ll stop there. I don’t want to wear you out.

            Liked by 4 people

          3. Agreed with the compliments to this note, Matti. And Wimsatt’s phrasing is new to me, but very enticing… the variegated ecologies of reality… It’s not cut and dry out there!


          4. That sounds about right to me Matti. Let me try to reduce our situation a bit further however, since I do happen to remain in that kind of camp.

            Try considering yourself and others here somewhat like chess players. From this perspective I’d say that you come here looking for people able to give you a good game . Note that Mike commonly walks up and down the field playing us all at once. Some here should naturally be better able to both defend their positions as well as attack the positions of others.

            Do we seek good games for enlightenment and to generally improve our skills? Prima facie yes, though I think there’s something deeper at work as well. As I see it we’re largely impelled by the quest for respect, both perceived from others as well is self appreciation. Though much might be won here, no less might be lost.

            Why did we evolve to be so concerned about how we are thought of? Given our extremely social nature, the strong and well thought of should naturally have advanced their genes better to thus promote theory of mind concerns in the gene pool. That should be why we play these games here for the most part.

            Though Dennett may technically be in my reductionist camp, I’m not much for the guy. I consider him too gifted an orator to be trusted. Intractable soft sciences and philosophy should tend to most benefit those who are armed with his gifts.

            I wouldn’t so much call the pervading perspective at Mike’s “an ontology”, but given the metaphysics of naturalism I’d rather call it “an epistemology”. Though reality should be whatever it is metaphysically, we simply try to reason things out. This observation might be a mere quibble however when compared with our goals in general.


          5. Since everyone else is being so amicable here, thought I would give it a try of at being a little more affable myself. As Eric pointed out, we are social creatures and we seek out others who share the same values; in the case of this particular blog site it is the ideology of materialism. This innate nature of ours results in what we call tribalism.

            I am neither a materialist nor an idealist, and although I have made a fair, honest, respectable and diligent attempt to convey my own ideas on this materialist site and as well as the idealist site of Bernardo Kastrup, I am met only with fierce opposition and resistance. Furthermore, whenever my forceful dialectic arguments cannot be refuted and the arguments of someone I am actively engaged with cannot be defended, those discussions usually end with some form of ad hominem or complete silence.

            All of us are adrift on the same boat in this vast ocean we call reality, and the worst part about that voyage is that we do not understand this place let alone what this shit is all about. I am sixty-eight (68) years old and it is my experience that human beings are not interested in learning anything new, they are only interested in reinforcing their own confirmational biases. This conclusion of mine is reinforced by the data provided by multiple studies. A good reference for anyone who is interested is the short documentary on PBS titled: “Hacking Your Mind”.

            Human beings are psychologically fragile and need some form of faith to keep from going insane. Belief in some type of divine being is a religious faith, the ontology of idealism is a religious faith, and the secular religion of materialism is also a faith. Religious people are highly sensitive and psychologically fragile, they are driven by their own insecurities to defend their beliefs and surround themselves with like minds in a feeble attempt to reinforce that what they choose to believe is correct.

            In closing, we all have to live with the choices that we make as well as the consequences that come with those choices. Walled cities are an excellent bulwark for keeping the enemies from destabilizing the village and threatening the citizens of a tribe. Nevertheless, walled cities also have an equally unexpected inverse, those walls keep the villagers prisoners as well. It is not my intent to ridicule anyone’s religious convictions or cause offense. So with that, I bit everyone I’ve engage with on this blog farewell…….

            Be at peace my internet friends

            Liked by 1 person

    2. FWIW, Matti, I think it’s possible that the human brain might just be the one non-deterministic thing in the universe. And I can’t help but note how in these discussions, even the staunchest of determinists keep using terminology that involves choices.


      1. I quite agree—hence my comment about compatibilists who keep moving the goal posts away from determinism and closer to libertarian free will.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I would be willing to take it to the next level Wyrd by positing that the physical brain is a highly structured and a highly deterministic system whereas the mind, an emergent physical property of the brain is indeterminate and on a parallel track with what we understand about the quantum world. Just like the quantum realm, the physical system of mind can hold all possibilities in a superposition until it makes a determination, a calculated intellectual measurement which collapses all of those possibilities into a single outcome and/or idea.


        1. I have wondered about the notion of a superposition of thoughts that we select from and, as you suggest, therefore collapsing to a single outcome. That said, I’m not sure I’m down with the dualism you imply between brain and mind. I think it’s possible the brain itself is a non-deterministic machine. Various feedback mechanisms allowing for selection among myriad competing thoughts.

          A question I frequently ask myself, as I stand at my pantry having decided to have soup, what exactly causes me to pick a given soup among the half-dozen or so possible choices? It’s an evenly balanced low-impact choice, not unlike choosing what path to take on my morning walks.


          1. “That said, I’m not sure I’m down with the dualism you imply between brain and mind.”

            Agreed. Clearly, there is a relational intersection taking place between the quantum realm and the classical world at the micro-level. There is no reason to believe that this intersection does not exist at the macro-level of the brain and the mind as well. The interactive dynamics and interplay between the classical brain and the quantum mind would just be the inverse of what we observe at the micro-level; a dynamic that results in the infamous Cartesian Me. This notion raises some very very interesting questions…….


  13. You made me define free will, which I hadn’t done before because I didn’t think it was important. However, with questions of punishment and retribution involved I know see I was wrong. I think, pragmatically speaking, most folks would be satisfied with “free will” that recognizes their ability to surprise and their capability for metacognition. Honestly, I think you might be able to just say metacognition and satisfy many.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might be right. Metacognition, particularly the comprehensive and recursive metacognition that humans seem to have, can be a useful criteria, mainly I think, due to what it enables: symbolic thought, such as language, mathematics, and calendars. These concepts allow us to foresee consequences much farther than any non-human animal. Our ability to inhibit or indulge impulses based on that foresight is, I think, what keeps social responsibility a coherent and useful concept.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s definitely true it functions as an inhibitor.

        To go a little farther, if we are clockwork, we are self aware and self editing clockwork. I’m not smart enough to work out all the implications of that sort of system, but it certainly seems capable of responsibility. It also seems to break strict deterministic models.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It certainly breaks any deterministic model to which the mind in question is privy, since that becomes part of the causal chain. I don’t know that it breaks it in principle though, although there are so many influences that are deterministic in principle yet effectively stochastic, that the issue is mostly moot.

          Liked by 1 person

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