Free will and determinism are separate issues

Deutsch: Transparente Präzisionswürfel aus Cel...
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Jerry Coyne as a new post up on free will.

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

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

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

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

But after covering those details, he makes this assertion:

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

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

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

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

Free will and the value of compatibilism

English: A table comparing the views one can h...

With the essays traded between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, free will is back in the web conversation.  I wasn’t planning on making another free will post myself, having been mostly satisfied with my previous statement on it.  But I’ve had a few conversations lately, both here on the site and in some other mediums, that made me realize that there are additional points to be discussed.

First, let’s be clear about something.  Libertarian free will, that is a will free of the laws of nature, or free of God’s will, isn’t really part of this particular debate.  The people most dismissive of free will tend to be passionate atheists, and libertarian free will is the one they’re usually aiming at, primarily due to its use by religious apologists as an answer to the problem of evil.

For people vested in theological debates, libertarian free will may seem like the only version of free will worth discussing.  If we don’t have it, aren’t the other versions just attempts at trying to save appearances?  Aren’t they just about people clinging to the term “free will,” simply afraid to face the reality of the situation, to bite the necessary philosophical bullet?

To answer that question, let’s think about an important clarification that Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and other incompatibilists usually make.  As determinists, they note that our choices are determined by the laws of physics.  However, they are careful to say that this shouldn’t imply fatalism.

Fatalism is the belief that future events are fixed in advance by the laws of physics, that we cannot avoid our fate, and it’s no use trying to.  For many people, determinism implies fatalism, and any attempt to pretend otherwise is simply avoiding the reality of the situation, a failure to bite the necessary philosophical bullet.  (Sound familiar?)

Of course, Harris and company don’t buy this, and they’re right not to.  They are determinists, but they are not fatalists.  It isn’t necessarily that the fatalists are factually wrong, it’s that their outlook isn’t productive.  Our actions will contribute to determining our fate.  It’s of no help when actually weighing the choice of possible actions to be preoccupied with the fact that the choice is already determined.  The choice still has to be made.

But what shall we call this position, the position of accepting determinism, but not fatalism?  We could call it “determinism but not fatalism”, or “anti-fatalist determinism.”  Or we could use the label that most philosophers use, and call it “compatibilism,” that is, a recognition that determinism and acting as though we have useful choices, is compatible.

Compatibilism isn’t so much an assertion about what reality is, but about how we should approach that reality.  This is why, despite scientific advances, free will very much remains a philosophical issue.

Is compatibilist free will a productive concept?  Does it make sense to say free will exists?  Isn’t it just an illusion, since we know that it ultimately isn’t a real thing?  That depends on what we mean by “real”.  Is this blog entry a real thing?  This web site?  You could argue that they are illusions since ultimately we know they don’t really exist, but are really only collections of magnetic patterns in a data center somewhere.

Ultimately, what is real?  Technically, everything we consider real are just patterns of fermions and bosons.  Even fermions and bosons themselves might eventually turn out to be patterns of something else.  The universe may be patterns, structure, all the way down.  Everything above that brute fact layer is emergent.  (If there even is a brute fact layer.  It may all be emergent.)  Does that mean we should regard it all as illusion?

From a pragmatic standpoint, to avoid endless navel gazing, we are forced to accept the existence of many patterns as realities, despite the fact that they are emergent phenomena.  We do this because it is productive to do so.

Is the concept of compatibilist free will productive?  Perhaps not if you’re a fatalist, such as a Calvinist or an extreme reductionist.  But to anyone who thinks there’s something to the notion of taking charge of our own lives, it remains a useful philosophy.  In the end, that’s how it should be judged.

Harris, Coyne, and others often cite as their motivation the elimination of punitive justice.  If someone is not “morally responsible”, they argue, then we shouldn’t want to make them suffer simply as a revenge mechanism.  The thing is, many people agree with this stance against vengeful justice.  Among liberals, it’s not a particularly controversial position.  Indeed, it’s one that many religious believers would fully endorse under the whole “turn the other cheek” doctrine.

So, why all the fuss about free will?  Well, as I said above, I think a lot of it has to do with atheist debates with religious apologists.  Libertarian free will is one of the theodicies, one of the solutions to the philosophical problem of evil.  But a nuanced argument against libertarian free will doesn’t seem nearly as effective as a blunt one against the phrase “free will.”  Of course, many other atheists disagree, among them people like Daniel Dennett and Sean Carroll.

The result is a largely a definitional debate among naturalists about what the term “free will” actually means.  And as I’ve written before, the problem with definitional arguments is that they tend to be endless and pointless.  There are many evils in the world.  The term “free will” is pervasive in law and culture.  Is the fight to eliminate it really a productive one?

The Marionette’s Lament : A Response to Daniel Dennett : : Sam Harris

Dear Dan—

I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to review Free Will at such length. Publicly engaging me on this topic is certainly preferable to grumbling in private. Your writing is admirably clear, as always, which worries me in this case, because we appear to disagree about a great many things, including the very nature of our disagreement.

via The Marionette’s Lament : A Response to Daniel Dennett : : Sam Harris.

Sam Harris has posted a reply to Dan Dennett’s review of his Free Will book.  Reading through it, it’s clear the the main bone of contention in this argument is the definition of the term “free will”.  As I wrote in my own free will post, definitional arguments are endless and, ultimately, pointless.

Jerry Coyne, who blogs extensively on free will, has also weighed in on this on Harris’s side.  Both of them, and many of the people in their camp, take determinism as a unquestioned given.  But as I’ve pointed out, determinism isn’t as, well, determined as many assume it to be.  Of course, even if it isn’t, that has no bearing on free will, since there’s nothing in random neuron firings for anyone to claim credit for.

So much verbiage over whether or not compatibilism is a useful position.  It seems like the debaters could just agree that libertarian free will is false, that compatiblist free will exists, and move on.  Yeah, I know, what would be the fun in that 🙂

Politics and money equal bad science

Fields of Science
Fields of Science (Photo credit: Image Editor)

Jerry Coyne blogged yesterday about the trend in articles pointing out the flaws in science, noting that most of the observed problems are in medical studies, most notably in drug studies, and that generalizing these problems to all of science isn’t really accurate or fair.

I agree, but I have an observation about why some fields have problems, and other don’t.  The natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, and geology don’t seem to be having particular problems.  Physicists are having a debate about whether certain theoretical concepts are really science, but that is a minor and relatively healthy debate, compared to the issues that these articles are discussing.

Issues such as unrepeatable results, shoddy methodologies, selective publication of data, and ideologically driven interpretations seem to predominate in certain fields, but not others.  Initially, I thought maybe it was just that fields with politically sensitive topics were the problem ones, but biology, despite much of society’s antipathy toward evolution, doesn’t seem to have these issues.

But some fields seem to have unusual problems in this area.  Economics comes to mind.  It’s a field where building a consensus appears to be a major challenge.  A lot of people point to the fact that economists can’t do experiments, that they can only observe what happens and try to build theories based on those observations.

Perhaps, but I think the bigger problem is that a lot of financially powerful constituencies have a stake in the results of economic studies, and that has a major influence on the profession.  There is a science of economics, and Paul Krugman and others often represent the voice of that science.  Krugman often calls for more empirical work, which bizarrely is something many economists resist, to the profession’s discredit as a science.

The other field that stands out is pharmacology, the study of drug effects and interactions.  Of course, the drug industry is heavily vested in the results of studies in this field, and actually probably fund most of it.  As the linked articles point out, most of the results in these studies can’t be replicated.

But politics and money can’t always damage a field.  Despite ferocious pushback from industry, the climatology field has largely stuck to its guns on climate change.  Although the conflict between this field and industry is relatively new, so it remains to be seen how well it will endure over the long term.

So, it seems to me that fields with subjects that are not considered controversial by powerful constituencies, have a higher level of credibility.  But where money and politics comes into the picture, the science starts to become influenced to an unhealthy degree.

I’m not sure what the solution to this is, other than to be cognizant of who funded a study, and whether or not its results have been replicated.

Free will? Free of what?

Credit: Jens Langner (

The concept of free will is intimately tangled up with the idea of responsibility.  Are you responsible for your actions?  To what degree are your actions predetermined?  If they are predetermined, how can we hold anyone accountable for their actions?  Does the idea of moral responsibility even make sense?

Libertarian free will

The classic definition of free will is a will free of the laws of nature.  That is, you are free to choose independent of the workings of the universe.  This version requires a belief in mind-body dualism, the idea that the mind is an independent non-material spirit free from physical constraints.  If you do believe in this kind of substance dualism, then you would probably believe in libertarian free will (the word ‘libertarian’ here has nothing necessarily to do with the political philosophy).

However, if you consider the mind to be the brain, or that it arises completely from the brain’s operations, then  the laws of physics make libertarian free will difficult, if not impossible, to accept.  The workings of your brain are completely controlled by the laws of physics and every choice you make is ultimately determined by those laws, even if it is unlikely it will ever be possible to predict them.

What about quantum effects?  If quantum uncertainty enters into mental processing, wouldn’t that mean that our choices are not really predetermined?  There’s no real compelling evidence that quantum uncertainty does enter into mental processing any more than it enters into other physical processes such as computer chip operations (which would fail if they weren’t deterministic).

Even if quantum uncertainty is a factor in mental processing, that still wouldn’t save libertarian free will.  The random quantum events might save the decisions from being predetermined, but they wouldn’t make the decisions free from that quantum randomness, free from the laws of nature.

I’ve already written on the evidence that the mind is completely contained in the brain.  So libertarian free will seems to be ruled out.

Are we done then?  Many purists will insist that we are.  However, most philosophers who reject dualism still see free will as existing.  Why?  Is it simply a lack of nerve on their part?  Or are there reasons for their position?


Our decisions may be metaphysically determined, but that is no guidance when we are faced with an actual decision.  We still have to evaluate different courses of action and make decisions.  The fact that we can evaluate different options and then make a choice implies a certain type of freedom.

Purists will insist that nothing has changed, that this freedom is an illusion, being ultimately only the workings of neurons and synapses effected by electrical inputs from the senses, in other words, of the laws of nature.  This is true, but only in the same sense that this blog post is an illusion.

Strictly speaking, this blog post doesn’t exist.  You are looking at patterns of pixels on a screen, which were formed from communications of magnetic patterns stored on a hard drive in a datacenter somewhere.  You can’t point to the post anywhere without someone insisting that you’re pointing at something else.

Of course, if the post doesn’t exist, then what am I writing, and what are you reading?  At some level, the post certainly does exist as a useful pragmatic concept.  (Perhaps you feel this post’s content lacks value, but it’s still productive for you to think of it as something that exists that lacks value.)  The post exists at a level of abstraction above transistor states and molecular magnetic patterns.  A blog post is an emergent concept that exists on top of those lower level constituents.

In the same manner, our freedom to weigh options and make mental determinations exist, at a certain level of abstraction, as an emergent phenomenon.  This recognition that we still have choices to make, that at a certain level of abstraction,  we are still free to choose among available options, leads to compatiblist versions of free will.

Compatibilism is, of course, controversial, most notably among neuroscientists.  But the controversy is ultimately a definitional one.  It boils down to the question, is the term ‘free will’ still a useful one once we’ve given up on the libertarian version?

Moral responsibility

Among the experiences that affect us is learning knowledge of the consequences of our actions.  I know that if I commit illegal actions, and I’m caught, that there will be consequences.  I also know that if I commit immoral actions that aren’t necessarily illegal, I could still face consequences for my reputation.  This knowledge, among other things, affects my choices.

Consider two cases.  In the first, we have Bart, a person who had a bad childhood and lives in poor economic conditions, which leads him into a situation where he commits a crime.  In the second, we have Joe, who has a brain tumor that causes him to have delusions, which cause him to commit a crime.

Which one, Bart or Joe, acted with free will?  Which one should be held accountable for their actions.  Most people would say Bart should be held accountable, should be punished, but that Joe should receive treatment.  But why?  Both are victims of their biology and environment.  Why shouldn’t both just receive treatment?

I think the answer boils down to the fact that it is productive to hold Bart accountable for his actions.  It will have a deterrent effect, at least to some degree, on others with Bart’s background.  Many people have bad childhoods and live in poor economic conditions.  Holding Bart accountable may have an effect on their decisions.

But it’s not productive to hold Joe, with the brain tumor, accountable.  Punishing Joe would be unlikely to affect the actions of others with brain tumors.  Therefore, we would consider Joe to have mitigating circumstances, that he did not act with free will.

Of course, in holding anyone accountable, we should remember our lack of libertarian free will, and show as much mercy as possible while being compatible with deterrence.  It’s only by the whims of chance that we weren’t born with their nature and lived their experiences.


Free will, from a pragmatic point of view, means simply a will free from coercion, physical restraint, brain abnormalities, or any other unusual constraints that would preclude the usefulness of holding someone accountable for their actions.  It doesn’t mean freedom from the workings of normally functioning brain or the laws of physics.  And it doesn’t mean freedom from our experiences.

The people who say that libertarian free will does not exist are right.  The people who say that compatibilist free will exists are also right.  Once libertarian free will is ruled out, the remaining debate is a definitional one.  And like most such debates, it tends to be endless and pointless.

It’s important to understand what the limits of our freedom are, but also to understand that those limits should not absolve us of responsibility for our actions, except in extraordinary conditions.

Further reading

Everyone has an opinion on this.  People like Jerry CoyneSam HarrisDaniel DennettSean Carroll, and many others have weighed in on it.  Coyne in particular has blogged extensively on it.  I tend to favor Dennett’s and Carroll’s take, but I would since I agree with them.

‘Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil,’ by Paul Bloom –

Is morality innate? In his new book, “Just Babies,” the psychologist Paul Bloom draws from his research at the Yale Infant Cognition Center to argue that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . . They are instead the products of biological evolution.” Infants may be notoriously difficult to study (rats and pigeons “can at least run mazes or peck at levers”), but according to Bloom, they are, in fact, “moral creatures.”

via ‘Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil,’ by Paul Bloom –

Related to the Radio Lab post yesterday, Simon Baron-Cohen reviews a book by Paul Bloom on the innate morality displayed by human babies.  I pretty much gave my opinion on this topic in yesterday’s post, they are similar to Bloom’s, but Baron-Cohen expresses some skepticism of the idea.

One of the problems in scientifically establishing innateness in humans is that it’s impossible to do it in a way to please a determined skeptic.  There are ethical limits on what can be done to test instincts in humans.  That means that the effects of culture can never be completely ruled out.

Behavior observed across cultures may be innate, or simply a very ancient cultural practice that is old enough to be in several different cultures today.  However, I think a case can be made that universally observed behavior does imply innateness.  Cultures are constantly adopting and discarding certain behaviors, and for a particular behavior to have survived in all observed cultures would seem, to me, to imply some kind of human innateness.

Of course, any theory of innateness is always subject to being falsified if cultures are found without that behavior.  That’s science.

But I suspect that in many ways, how you respond to this idea largely determines your attitude toward evolutionary psychology.  If you think establishing cross cultural behavior implies innateness, then you probably find evolutionary psychology to be a valid field.  If you are skeptical that such evidence actually implies innateness, then you probably won’t see evolutionary psychology as very useful.

David Dobbs mucks up evolution, part II « Why Evolution Is True

David Dobbs mucks up evolution, part II « Why Evolution Is True.

The second part of Jerry Coyne’s response to David Dobb’s Aeon piece on the problems with the selfish gene metaphor.

Be sure to read Dobb’s extended response in the comment section.  Maybe I’m misreading, but Dobb’s appears to be backpedaling significantly from the sentiment expressed in the title of his article.

I find Coyne’s arguments more compelling on this, but I wonder about whether the recent results showing smell memory being passed from generation to generation in mice has any bearing on the debate.

David Dobbs mucks up evolution, part I « Why Evolution Is True

At any rate, Dobb’s goal is several fold. First, he wants to claim that the metaphor of the selfish gene is wrong.  Second, he wants to show that it’s wrong because new understanding of gene regulation—how genes turn on and off during development—render the selfish gene metaphor passé.  Finally, he claims that a new theory, that of “genetic accommodation,” relegates much of conventional evolutionary theory to the dustbin, for the new theory deposes the centrality of the gene in favor of the centrality of the environment and its nongenetic effects on development. I’ll deal with the first two issues today, and the third tomorrow.

All three of these claims are wrong.

via David Dobbs mucks up evolution, part I « Why Evolution Is True.

Jerry Coyne responding to David Dobb’s Aeon piece on the defectiveness of the selfish gene metaphor that I linked to yesterday.  This is the first of a two part response.

Reading it, I’m starting to suspect some of this may be an argument over semantics.  Genes aren’t the whole story.  Gene expression is critical, but gene expression comes from…other genes and DNA components.

I commented yesterday that I thought calling the selfish gene metaphor invalid was an overstatement.  It looks like Coyne is hammering on the details of that overstatement.

Atheists should be tolerant of religion

Recently, there was an NPR story by Marcelo Gleiser on how scientists should respond to people’s anxiety about science and God.  Jerry Coyne responded in a post asking if faith should ever not be contested (excluding dying grandmothers and such).  In his response, Coyne referred to a famous quote by Karl Marx.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

The reasoning here is that religion makes oppressed people more tolerant of their condition.  Remove the mechanism that placates them, and they’ll demand real change from their condition.  Like many nonbelievers, I have to admit to having felt what I thought was the truth of Marx’s words here.  However, I no longer think Marx was right about this.  Indeed, I think I’ve turned sharply against it.

My evolution away from it started with a series of posts by the evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber.  Barber points out that, on a country by country basis, religiosity is inversely proportional to GDP per capita.  In other words, the poorest countries on Earth are the most religious.  The richest are the most secular.  (With outliers like the US, but the relationship holds across US states.)  There are lots of exceptional people who transcend this, but they are exceptions to the broad statistics of populations.  Barber refers to religion as a “security blanket”.  But in processing his posts, I realized a better phrase might be ‘coping mechanism’.

People are not miserable because they are religious.  (Well some are, but that’s not the direction of causality for most people.)  Most people are religious because they live poor hard scrabble lives, lives where they have little power over what happens to them, or are anxious by nature.  Their religion is often their coping mechanism.

But wouldn’t removing that coping mechanism incite them to improve their situation?  Maybe, but this reasoning sounds perilously close to the same reasoning conservatives often deploy to resist unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other assistance programs.  Deny people this aid, the reasoning goes, and they’ll be motivated to improve their situation.  Sound familiar?

Both lines of reasoning assume that people aren’t already motivated to improve their lot.  If you don’t make that assumption, then removing aid (welfare) from people only makes them more miserable and the climb out of poverty harder.  It seems reasonable to assume that removing their coping mechanism (religion) would probably simply increase their psychological burdens and also make that climb harder.

This implies that to succeed at making a more rational society, first economic security and equality must be secured.  Selling cold hard rationalism to people without these benefits will have limited success.  It doesn’t mean you can’t sell  your world view, only that there should be a sensitivity to people’s circumstances and their readiness to hear it.

A couple of quick notes.  Some religious believers may read this post as being condescending.  It’s not intended to be.  The truth is that non-belief is, for most of us, a luxury.  All of us should be cognizant that if our lives had turned out differently, if we had lost the lottery of birth and been born in poorer circumstances, we would likely need religious belief as much as anyone.

Finally, this isn’t an argument to tolerate fundamentalism, biblical literalism, faith healing, or other destructive practices.  Where science clearly contradicts belief, or where those beliefs are clearly destructive, they should be contested.  Nor is this an argument to tolerate encroachments on the separation of church and state.  Tolerance, after all, is a two way street.