Monday, October 28, 2013

Free will once more, with a growing realization

Round and round it goes, perhaps forever. One may be forgiven for wondering whether one side is so sure that it is right that it is not actually listening to what the other says.

It could be either side. Note, however, that the discussion, at least as conducted over at the linked comment threads, is quite asymmetrical: Incompatibilists say quite openly that they consider compatibilism to be merely a crutch manufactured to soften the blow of determinism, that compatibilists are deluded or even outright dishonest, and that everybody should stop using the term "free will" and, depending on their mood, sometimes also the term "choice", because they supposedly mean something supernatural. Compatibilists, on the other side, merely reply that these terms do not necessarily mean something supernatural, and would you please stop talking about us in this aggressive and demeaning way when the discussion is only about terminology anyway?

Or in other words: Incompatibilists condescend towards compatibilists but the compatibilists do not condescend back. That might explain something about the dynamics of this discussion.

To recap: When discussing free will vis a vis determinism, it is generally assumed that there are three different positions, or groups of people:
  1. Those who hold that we have a form of free will that allows us to make decisions independently from the laws of physics, our genetic makeup, the environmental influences that shaped us, our current state of brain chemistry, whatever, either because our body is steered by a supernatural soul (contra-causal/dualist free will) or without any attempt at explanation because it is a necessary premise for libertarian ideology (libertarian free will).
  2. Those who hold that everything is determined by cause-and-effect, with perhaps a bit of (quantum) randomness thrown in, and thus our decisions are also predetermined with a bit of random, and thus it does not make sense to speak of free will and choice because those terms are commonly understood in the sense that the first group is advocating* (incompatibilism).
  3. Those who hold that everything is determined by cause-and-effect, with perhaps a bit of (quantum) randomness thrown in, and thus our decisions are also predetermined with a bit of random, but it still makes sense to speak of free will and choice because those words do not necessarily imply anything contra-causal and supernatural*, and even given determinism we still need some terms to describe the difference between somebody acting out of their own free will and being forced to do something, or between a kleptomaniac and somebody stealing for profit (compatibilism).
For me, at least one thing came out of the discussions linked to above: I am increasingly coming to the realization that the first two positions are not actually, really, in practice, held by any significant number of people, or at least not by anybody who is sound of mind. And yes, I realize that this can be seen as at least as condescending as the idea that compatibilism is nothing but motivated reasoning because it may be taken to mean that the incompatibilists are either deluded or dishonest; but I would prefer to stress that the difference between the second and third position boils down to semantics anyway.

So why would I think that the first two positions do not really exist? Aren't there a lot of people advancing them?

It is helpful here to differentiate between what people pretend to believe for strategic reasons or believe they believe because they have not thought things through on the one side, and what people actually do believe as demonstrated by their actions on the other. Two well known examples will suffice to make the point.

There are quite a few religiously or postmodernistically inclined people around who claim that we can never know anything, that every claim, even those supported by the best scientific evidence available, is mere opinion or ideology. Still, even these people will not attempt to walk through walls because they know from experience that it is impossible, and they will still eat food in the knowledge that it will nourish them. In other words, although they claim to believe that we cannot know anything, they still show through their actions that they really believe that we can know things.

(And really science is nothing but a more sophisticated variant of repeatedly trying to walk through walls to see if it works. If you accept the kind of knowledge that allows you to leave an apartment without getting bruises all over your forehead, all of science including evolution, vaccination, or climate modelling follows by logical extension.)

Similarly, it is often pointed out that most religious believers do not, no matter how much they believe that they believe it, really believe in a happy afterlife in heaven, as demonstrated by the facts that they fear death, avoid danger, and mourn over dead friends and relations. (In this case, as opposed to the first, it pays to insert a "most" into the sentence because there actually is a significant minority of martyrs, jihadists, and other assorted fundamentalists whose faith is strong enough to overcome fear of death and danger. Most religious people, however, can merely be said to hope for the afterlife.)

Now let us apply those considerations to the free will/determinism controversy. I have previously argued that no sane human actually believes in contra-causal or dualist free will in practice, although they may claim to do so for the purpose of religious apologetics or because they simply have not reconciled the contradiction between their claim and their actions.

There are two angles from which we can look at the issue to realize that this is true. First, if somebody really believed in contra-causal free will, they would have no way of anticipating other people's actions, and thus they would go mad. Second, try to figure out what contra-causal free will would look like, how it would differ from determinism or randomness. Take your time and try. It really cannot be done. There are precisely two options: either something follows some rules, regularity, or logic, which is determinism, or it is random. And the latter is not what a dualist would mean with free will either. So even if they call it supernatural (whatever that is), there would still be some deterministic rules - even if they are hidden, beyond-our-understanding, mysterious-are-the-ways-of-the-LORD-y deterministic rules - behind a behavior or it would be random behavior.

Whether you agree or not, so much I had already concluded to my own satisfaction. The recent round of discussion over at WEIT, and in particular some rhetorical questions by commenters Vaal and Coel and the non-answers provided by incompatibilists, have now convinced me that there are no incompatibilists either. Or let us say, nobody who is sound of mind is really, in practice, an incompatibilist.

Because if one would really believe that due to the predetermination of human actions there is "no difference" between doing something out of one's own free will and being coerced into doing something, or between falling out of a window and jumping out of a window, then one would have to treat the people who do either exactly the same. By not treating people equally for the same actions, regardless of their insanity or intentions, by not prosecuting a landslide for killing somebody, incompatibilists demonstrate as clearly as a postmodernist using a door that they do not actually hold the beliefs that they pretend to hold.

In summary, every sane human is a compatibilist determinist. There are those who have examined their beliefs and thus call themselves compatibilists. Then there are surely many (especially religious) people who wrongly believe they are not determinists because they have so far failed to reconcile their claims with their pragmatic behavior that only makes sense if they really believe that determinism is true. And finally there are some people who behave in every detail as compatibilists, and who have taken the compatibilist stance for dealing with responsibility and choice in a deterministic universe, but who have taken an irrational dislike to the word "free will".

That is it.


*) It is perhaps too much to hope that we could at some point examine empirical evidence on this fundamental premise of the incompatibilist stance. For me, those terms simply do not imply what they appear to imply to an incompatibilist. Maybe I am in the minority here and most other humans see them as supernatural concepts, but I would like to have some actual data, and it may well be that those data would surprise this or that incompatibilist. At a minimum, the following is already clear: The terms "free", "degree of freedom" and "choice" have numerous applications in the vernacular, in science and in mathematics that have no contra-causal or supernatural implications whatsoever, and in my native language, "freiwillig" does not have any such implications either because it is simply the German word for "voluntarily".


  1. I really resonate with what you've said, and I've also concluded that compatibilism seems right.

    If I flick my mind back to my fundamentalist mode, I can predict what a substance dualist might say: something along the lines of "There are fundamental minds that aren't made of smaller bits or subject to physics of any kind (ie. souls or spirits). Each person has such a soul, and our decisions are partially guided by our immaterial souls, and partially determined by our environment (brain chemistry, etc.). So if I rob a bank, some of the blame might go to a bad upbringing, but some of the blame also goes to my immaterial soul." It's complete bullshit of course, but it sort of sidesteps the impossibility of contra-causal free will. To restate it - a Christian might say that free will is a combination of uncaused spirit will, and physical world influences.

    Just thought I'd write that down since it sprang to mind.

    When I worked through this issue for myself, I figured that "free will" can be considered on three distinct levels:

    1. The fundamental physical forces of the universe, the Laplace's demon thought experiment. Everything is deterministic, as far as we can tell. (A typical incompatibilist probably just myopically looks at this level and jettisons any free will concepts).

    2. Human-scale cause and effect. Even if it turned out that the universe wasn't bound by physical laws and miracles abounded, a person's destiny would still be largely determined by their upbringing, community, disabilities, etc.

    3. The "responsibility" kind of free will. Even if everything physically is totally hard-determined, well, we still attribute blame to people for their actions. So if the criminal says "your honour, I had no choice but to commit that crime", the judge just replies "Correct, and I have no choice but to send you to jail now", and all the practical characteristics of what we know as people's free will continues regardless.

    So I look at my 1 and 2 and say "Completely deterministic!", and then I look at 3 and say "But we have something meaningfully called free will regardless."

    So, that's my brain dump. Now I want to go and read what philosophers have to say about it. But I agree with your view, you make a good case breaking down the problems with the "free will is a meaningless concept" and the "willed actions are uncaused" camps.

  2. Thanks for the comment. If faced with such a substance dualist, I would try to ask them how they figure that an immaterial soul could do anything that is neither following set rules nor random, in other words whether anything would really be different by postulating something immaterial.

    This is, turned around, also what bugs me about so many on the other side who consider everything settled by modern neuroscience: its novel insights are fantastic but do not appear to change anything either way for the free will debate because some people have already philosophized under the assumption of complete determinism hundreds of years ago.

  3. I agree that neuroscience does what it does but it's hardly central here.

    I have a lot of problem with what I've read on free will, espectially from scientists, e.g. - which has some facts but not really a coherent position on what to do next.

    There's a lot on this site that I agree with - - but I don't find in Zen anything spiritual, to me that's a black hole.

    Which is actually what I've been looking for a way out of. If you know it's all pointless, why bother? I don't know, I honestly just pretend.

    I don't have a lot of choice because it's the bit that has the experience that can't see the point of anything and has feelings about it.

    I can carry on concerning myself with the things that I feel a lot about - family, etc - but I'm just adrift.

    I think one of the reasons atheists get so worked up in feeling superior about religion and so on is that it gives them a cause, rather than think about the inconsistencies in their own position.

    I do like your blog, though, so thanks. Will try to leave a comment on Frankenstein. Am trying to blog again myself to keep busy.

    Mustn't grumble!

  4. Wow, that is rather a bleak take on things. Why do you think everything is pointless?

    One of the things I wanted to get across is that determinism is a necessity for us to have agency because the only alternative is randomness. The other I have made elsewhere ( what are you?

    And the answer is that you are not a helpless observer of your body shambling around, witlessly following cause and effect, as implied in the incompatibilist stance espoused by Jerry Coyne. You are part of that network of cause and effect because you are your body. Taken together, this leads to the only coherent understanding of agency but that means it also leads to an understanding of us having agency.

    What we do matters because every account that has us not having agency relies on a stealth-dualist misconception of what that 'me' or 'you' is.

  5. Well, combine most of the nihilistic aspects of the arguments in these "scientific ideas ready for retirement" and that's me!

    Cognitive agency -

    Although I disagree about "mind wandering" - yes, it's a "booming research field" but calling it that gives the misleading impression it's something separate from some sort of ill-defined better mind stuff, and I think he contradicts himself or at least is on dodgy ground regarding its functionality. So qualify it with this:

    The self -

    But I think they both fudge the political or social consequences, both implying that there are some. What useful consequences can there be?

    In fact, look at the last entry in your own blog - Evolution does not have direction -

    We can experience being here and the making of our own decisions, in fact we are entirely made up of our experiences of ourselves, but we are directionless.

    If you accept nature has no purpose, I guess you will now argue that we are one of your "special cases where I find it helpful and justified to think in terms of directionality"?

  6. To those two essays my answer would be the same as to what goes on over at WEIT: what is the problem? Either I am my body, in which case unconscious decisions are also my decisions and I simply need no King Solomon inside my head, or they assume that my only true self could be a soul in all but name, in which case I would reject that form of dualism as unsupported and incoherent.

    For some reason I have no problem with being directionless. I have people to care about, work to do and interests to pursue. Perhaps it is an advantage to have been raised in an atheist household because the idea that there could be a higher purpose to existence just never even came up. Then again, I have heard of people raised atheist who could not live without that illusion and spent years desperately searching for religious guidance, so maybe it is a question of personality.

    No, we aren't; what I meant with that is basically directional selection (more on Monday).

  7. It may be a very fine line to cross, but I don't like being on the wrong side of it!

    The mind may be the "body thinking", as you say, but what we generally identify with is all the stuff that we can be aware of in various combinations (feelings, sight, inner voice, heat, orientation, dreams, etc) - at any moment we are conscious of being anything - which is not quite the same thing.

    Probably all that this "self" (or selves) is doing is directing attention, recycling information and highlighting possible patterns for future use, yet it feels like we are not just experiencing this but directing it.

    I'm sure most people feel that "we" are not our body, so much as the body is "ours", even though logically it has to be the other way round: our selves are a subset of functions of the body.

    It's hardly surprising with this slight sense of dissociation from the body that so many people look for a spiritual element to their lives, and not just limited to organised religion, even if there is nothing to find. While others will just accept themselves at face value, without any spiritual element but without feeling the need to question the nature of their experience either.

    This is why 'Why Evolution Is True' gets tiresome - they can't accept it's natural that many people will live with contradictions, nor will they accept that they often haven't resolved their own.

    I agree it's probably a question of personality. Maybe if you're a do-er (and scientists are explorers) you can enjoy the benefit of not wasting time on something that can't ever really be answered.

    Personally, I'm arty-farty, so I've little choice between recognising that art is a human form of evaporating pheromone trails and pretending there is some meaning to it, which there isn't.

    On days when I feel I'm seeing the world clearly, it looks empty. Not a nice feeling.

    The nearest to a positive of this outlook is watered down Zen Buddhism, I suppose, but I can't take any religion seriously, although I appreciate it more in others than I used to.

    So I enjoyed the novel "Life of Pi" very much, as it's about the survival of ideals in the face of the survival urge, although I assumed for much of the book it was going to come down much more on the side of atheism than in the end it did.

    Maybe I'm in a smaller minority than I hoped. I can't see any moral compass other than a made-up one. Maybe this guy has a good one made up - - I don't know, probably not.

    I quite like the idea of prosecuting a landslide though - it seems both reasonable and fair.

    Thanks for the chat.


    P.S. I didn't really think you meant that about directionality, but I feel like everyone else (and me - I'm still here aren't I) you allow yourself a bit of inconsistency.