Do human beings have free will? Can we choose among different possible actions and beliefs? Or are we controlled by our genetics, or by blind physical processes in our brains?
And if we couldn’t make genuine choices, would that diminish us? Would we be any different from animals, except a little smarter … perhaps? And what would that say about human rights and ethics?
Are humans different to animals?
It seems that most people think that we are different, and of more value, than animals.
- Penalties in the laws of most countries (if not all) are greater for harming people than for harming animals. It is acceptable in most countries to kill and eat animals (though many individuals are opposed to this), but it isn’t acceptable to kill and eat people.
- The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognises “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Article 1 says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience”.
The UN document gives us an understanding of why human life is valued above animals: it is because of human dignity (whatever that may mean), reason and conscience. The Declaration talks a lot about freedom, generally meaning political and social freedom, but it is based on a sense of moral responsibility that infers belief that humans are free to make choices.
People experience free will
It seems that it is universal human experience to feel that we have freedom to make choices, and our actions are not all determined by blind physical brain processes. But can we trust that experience? Could our actions be determined even though they feel free?
Neuroscience and naturalism
Neuroscience throws doubt on any human ability to choose.
Science is the study of the natural world, and it generally proceeds on the assumption of methodological naturalism. That is, because science addresses the natural world, all things studied by science are assumed to be based only on natural processes. Many scientists are naturalists by belief (i.e. they believe there is nothing more than the natural world, and therefore no supernatural), but even a scientist who believes in God is expected not to use a supernatural explanation for a phenomenon. (There are some scientists who are unwilling to accept this limitation, for example, proponents of Intelligent Design, but in the main, scientists look for natural explanations for natural phenomena.)
But when brain processes are examined scientifically, it can be seen they consist of electrical and chemical processes that are subject to known natural laws. There doesn’t seem to be any place for the human mind to exercise any control over these processes. In fact, the human mind appears to only exist within the processes. Some scientific experiments seem to demonstrate free will, but more seem to demonstrate determinism.
And anyway, it may be argued, what is choice? Actions either have causes or they don’t, and an action with causes is determined by those causes, while an action without a cause is simply random. So perhaps the whole idea of choice is meaningless?
So it is no surprise to find that many neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers believe the human mind and consciousness is totally produced by our physical brains and so humans don’t have the ability to change the course of our brain processes.
It seems we have three choices:
- Find a way to live with our lack of freedom.
- Find a way that naturalism can allow for human freedom.
- Conclude that naturalism is false.
Living with determinism
Although many scientists and philosophers believe we don’t have free will, many also believe that we need the illusion of freewill to function as individuals and socially. For example, studies show that when people disbelieve in free will, they are more likely to behave in anti-social and unethical ways.
Lack of free will seems to imply we cannot be held morally responsible, for how can we be responsible for something that we had no real choice over? Thus determinism has huge implications for ethics, law and criminology.
Some scientists think it is best that their conclusions about our lack of free will should be kept from the general public. Some philosophers (compatibilists) redefine free will as freedom from outside compulsion, and so can say that we are still free even if our brain processes are fully determined, but others say this is just a semantic trick. Others simply say it is true that we can’t have free will and we just have to live with that.
None of these responses seem attractive or viable to me, or to many scientists and philosophers, so it is worth checking out the other options.
Can naturalism allow for freedom?
Scientists and philosophers have tried to find ways they can hold onto naturalism and free will at the same time, but their efforts so far don’t seem to be successful
- Philosophers Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers argue that there must be more in the universe than the physical, though they don’t believe in the supernatural, but they don’t seem to be able to offer any compelling explanation of how this can be true.
- Others look to quantum indeterminacy to provide an escape from determinism, but this too seems inadequate. Randomness isn’t choice.
So the link between naturalism and determinism seems to be strong. Philosopher John Searle says that while he is still looking for an alternative to determinism, he’s not confident we can find one.
Maybe naturalism isn’t true?
Naturalism is, after all, an assumption of science. because it only measures the natural world, it is unable to either confirm or deny the existence of anything beyond nature. So even if we have a mind that is “beyond” nature, somehow “above” the brain (a view known as dualism), science would be unable to observe or measure it.
So are there any reasons to believe we have minds that allow us to freely choose?
The most obvious reason is that we seem to experience free will. We ask people for explanations of their actions in terms of their choices, not in terms of physical brain processes. But how do we know our experience of free will is real?
We could ask a parallel question – how do we know the external world is real? We all experience it through our senses, but how do we know our senses are giving us real information? We cannot prove it by science, because scientific evidence comes to us through our senses, and we are questioning whether those senses are giving us true information.
Most of us assume, without often thinking about it, that the external world is real because:
- Our experience of it is consistent across time.
- It is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way.
- Believing it is real helps us live productive and meaningful lives.
Of course all this could be part of the illusion. But few of us believe that – life is all too real!
So, it may be argued, we can believe in free will for similar reasons: (1) our experience of it is consistent across time, (2) it is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way, and (3) believing it is real helps us live productive and meaningful lives (and, as we have seen, not believing it tends to lead to more anti-social behaviour).
Is free will part of a package?
Science cannot, at present, explain many aspects of the human mind:
- how the brain produces our consciousness, and why (a computer can reproduce many aspects of human thinking, but it doesn’t need to be conscious to do it),
- philosopher Jurgen Habermas says the rationality of scientific research presupposes free will, but science cannot explain how free will could occur,
- there are things almost all of us believe are truly wrong, but naturalism cannot explain how they could be truly wrong, nor does it provide a basis for holding people responsible for their actions.
It seems to me that all these things (consciousness, free will, rationality and objective ethics) are part of a package – we pretty much have to deny them all or accept them all.
It depends on our perspective
If we treat human beings as objects to be studied from the outside, then we can apply the normal processes of science, and conclude that free will is impossible. We will likely think that humans are no more than clever (and sometimes stupid!) animals.
But if we take an insider’s perspective to examine what it is like to be human, we will conclude that humans are more than the external view can tell us, and we can accept our experience of free will, our consciousness of self, our rationality and our ethical sense as true. We can then think that humans are indeed much more than animals.
There are many unresolved questions with either view, but I feel much more comfortable with the second view. Our experience of free will seems real and we have good reason to believe it is indeed real. And if it is real, science will struggle to examine it because it is part of us that is “beyond” the mere natural. Science doesn’t find freewill because science is limited in ways that make it impossible to find it, just as a blind person cannot examine colour.
So I don’t think we can be human without free will, and I don’t think naturalism can explain what it means to be truly human.
- John Searle: Do You Have Free Will? (2008) and Neuroscience, Intentionality and free will (2007)
- Acting on Gaps? John Searle’s Conception of Free Will. Kim Joris Boström, Ana Honnacker, Arnold Ziesch
- Free will, evolution and human rationality. On this site.
- Do humans have free will? On this site. Includes many more references.
I guess I don’t understand what people are arguing about when it comes to free will.
And that’s an example of what does not make sense.
I chose to comment on this post.
The argument seems to be that I could not choose, because my brain made me do it. But that makes no sense at all. My brain is part of me. It’s not as if I am separate from and independent of my brain. So “my brain made me do it” is completely compatible with “I chose to do it.” Or, better, “I chose to do it, and I used my brain in making that choice.”
This makes no sense, though I find similar views are often expressed.
The statement purports to be scientists making a choice about whether to reveal that they have no ability to make a choice. It seems obviously self-contradictory.
I take naturalism to be a stance or an outlook. It does not seem to be the kind of thing that could be either true or false. I have no idea what it would imply to say “naturalism is true” or to say “naturalism is false”.
It is as if I am a painter, and I am painting the world in natural paint. If I discover something new, and can learn to understand it, then I will consider that to be part of nature. So I am painting that new part of the world in natural paint. The only things left for the supernatural, are the parts of the world that I have not yet discovered. The supernaturalists are being painted into a corner, and that corner keeps getting smaller.
“I guess I don’t understand what people are arguing about when it comes to free will. … The argument seems to be that I could not choose, because my brain made me do it.”
I don’t think that’s the argument. Unless we are hypnotised or drugged and thus under someone else’s control, of course any choice we make occurs in our brain (or mind). The question, I think, is this. Do all the antecedent causes and physical brain processes fully explain and determine the “choice” that we make? Or is there some element that is not determined by those causes and processes, and is thus at our discretion? If the former, then our “choice” couldn’t have been different. If the latter, then it could perhaps have been different had we chosen differently. In the first case (determinism) our “choice” is illusory, in the second case it is genuine.
“The statement purports to be scientists making a choice about whether to reveal that they have no ability to make a choice. It seems obviously self-contradictory.”
Yes, I agree, but no more contradictory than any other statement about choice if determinism is true.
“The only things left for the supernatural, are the parts of the world that I have not yet discovered. The supernaturalists are being painted into a corner, and that corner keeps getting smaller.”
I don’t think that is true for thoughtful supernaturalists (of which I hope I am one). I would define “natural” as part of the space-time world of matter and energy. If there’s a God, then he (or she) is outside all this, I believe. If a theist explains normal natural processes via God (e.g. Thor and thunder), then God’s sphere will become smaller as science progresses. But these days thoughtful theists regard God as the explanation of the entirety of the natural world, and some specific and atypical events (e.g. apparent one-off miracles). Neither of those facts are getting less. As I’ve argued in this post, the more we learn about consciousness, the brain and mind, etc, the less likely it seems that naturalism is true. Likewise, miracles still seem to be occurring occasionally.
Interested in your further comments.
That seems to be pretty much the same as “my brain made me do it, therefore I didn’t have choice.” You are want to have discretion and you want that discretion to count as your discretion, yet you want it to not involve your brain and body. It still does not make sense.
This is far from obvious. Your brain could have behaved differently, and that would be you making a different choice. Of course, if you make a different choice, your brain is going to behave differently.
Our ordinary experience is of weighing options and making a decision. And that’s what I take free will to be — our ability to weigh options and make decisions. I don’t try to force that into some rigid category of what free will ought to be, because it’s probably a mistake to invent such rigid categories.
Been a while. I just thought I’d stop by to say that I agree with Neil, and that the three reasons you give for accepting LFW would seem to work just as well for compatibilism. Cheers.
Hi Neil, interested to discuss further.
“That seems to be pretty much the same as “my brain made me do it, therefore I didn’t have choice.” You are want to have discretion and you want that discretion to count as your discretion, yet you want it to not involve your brain and body. It still does not make sense.”
No, I know that my choices “involve” my brain and body. I just say that:
1. If the only events happening in my brain are physical events, and
2. if those events are governed or described by physical laws, and
3. if “choice” means that laws and antecedent conditions don’t totally control outcomes,
4. then there is no choice involved.
Leaving aside my view that choice is involved, would you disagree with the logic of that statement?
“This is far from obvious. Your brain could have behaved differently”
I don’t see this. Granted the laws of physics, the inputs from the external world and the initial state of your brain, what could lead to a different result than the one that actually occurred?
“Our ordinary experience is of weighing options and making a decision. And that’s what I take free will to be — our ability to weigh options and make decisions.”
I agree. But if the physical processes are all that impact on our decision, how can “weighing options” be anything other than a process determined by them?
Compatibilism doesn’t say that we should feel that our actions are determined. It says that the determinism is not accessible to the phenomenal experience and is thus subjectively indistinguishable from LFW. The difference is that the compatibilist is content with saying that freedom resides at (or only matters at) the level of phenomenological experience, not at the level of physics.
I realise compatibilism doesn’t say how we should feel. But you said: “the three reasons you give for accepting LFW would seem to work just as well for compatibilism”, and I am saying that reason #2 doesn’t work for compatibilism. So there is more reason from our experience to believe in free will than to believe in compatibilism.
I guess I misunderstood. Why do you think reason #2 doesn’t work for compatibilism?
BTW – the first few comments on this post seem to have disappeared?
#2 is “It is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way.” So I think that is true of free will as I originally said. Virtually all people feel we have freewill, so much so that even many people who don’t think we actually have free will still think we cannot live without the illusion of it.
But the same isn’t true of compatibilism. If you asked people if they feel that their actions are determined but they feel free if those actions are not imposed from outside, most would say “Huh?” Very few people feel that way or have even thought of the idea.
So I disagree with your original statement: “the three reasons you give for accepting LFW would seem to work just as well for compatibilism”
Yes, the comments have disappeared. The database has been corrupted, and all the comments are still there, but the field in the table that links the comment to a post has been blanked. Th is is the second time this has happened since I began hosting with a new provider, and I don’t know what it’s happened, and I’m concerned. Have I been hacked twice (and if so, how has my provider allowed this)? How else could it have happened? I have everything backed up, but it is still a bit of mucking around to get it all back.
This is just silly. Compatibilism does not imply determinism. It is merely compatible with determinism.
I’m a compatibilist, because I think that gives a pretty good account of free will. But I am not a determinist. In my opinion, determinism is seriously mistaken idea.
I don’t have to be a determinist in order to be a compatibilist.
I still read you as saying that compatibilism implies a sense of determinism, and that this is the reason “it is [NOT] apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way”. I don’t feel like this explanation is any different than before, so my original response still applies. How are we misunderstanding each other here?
I don’t think the intention is strict determinism. I think “determinism” in this case is any causal explanation, at the level relevant to brain function, that operates according to established physical regularities (even if those include fundamentally stochastic or indeterminate processes).
Fair enough. And I’m okay with that. That limited determinism already convinces some people that we could not have free will. But I find that reaction to be puzzling. Free will should not be merely that we can freely decide to take an action. It should also include that can actually act in accordance with our decisions. That is, our free will decisions should be able to determine our actions. And we need a limited determinism for that to be possible.
“Compatibilism does not imply determinism. It is merely compatible with determinism.”
I don’t see this. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives this definition: “Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism.” Which is different.
“I’m a compatibilist, because I think that gives a pretty good account of free will. But I am not a determinist.”
It seems to me that this statement is contradictory. A compatibilist thinks free will and determinism are both sensible and compatible. You think free will is sensible but determinism isn’t. I can’t see how you can be a compatibilist.
” In my opinion, determinism is seriously mistaken idea.”
Can I ask you to elaborate on this please. (1) Do you think that our initial brain state, external inputs to our brain and our brain process fully define how we make a choice? (2) If so, where can free will occur? (3) if not, what else contributes to our choice?
“How are we misunderstanding each other here?”
The key to this is my suggestion that we can conclude that our experience of free will is real because it satisfies three criteria, one of which is that it is experience by everyone in the same way. I think that is close to toally true about free will – i.e. almost everyone feels we have free will.
Compatibilism is defined as determinism and free will are both true and compatible. But I think hardly anyone feels our choices are determined. I feel most people feel and think that free will isn’t compatible with determinism, and I think most people would think that the sort of freewill that compatibilists believe in isn’t “real” freewill at all. So I think your original statement that the three criteria apply to compatibilism is quite wrong.
This is all I saw before and I think we’ve already established that a feeling of determinism isn’t expected under compatibilism, so I’ll disregard this part.
This seems to be the rub, and I think I would agree with that observation on the naive, intuitive level for the public at large. But then you have stuff like the PhilPapers survey showing 60% acceptance among philosophers, who have obviously thought more deeply about this. And anecdotally, once you review the divide between conscious and unconscious activity and point out that our sense of free will is, by definition, only accessible at the conscious level, I find that people can readily recognize how free will – and the very real experience of making choices – can exist at the phenomenal level even if “deterministic”, subconscious processes underly it.
So ultimately it seems like the distinction you’re making is kind of like the flat-earthers’ argument. The immediate intuitive sense that we all get from our everyday experience is that the earth is flat, so we should favor this over any alternatives that arise when we put in a bit more effort.
How is that different?
In your reply to Travis, you stated “Compatibilism is defined as determinism and free will are both true and compatible.” But that is not how it is defined in SEP nor how it is defined in Wikipedia. I have not come across that way of defining, except in your posts.
As best I can tell, determinism is not a well defined thesis. If there is one errant particle somewhere in the cosmos, then determinism is false. The idea depends on the present being a consequence of the past. But past and present are dubious terms, given Einstein’s relativity and his demonstration of problems with the concept of simultaneity. We can talk of determinism in a local setting, but it is dubious as a cosmos-wide concept.
No. That mis-describes our status.
You go to a restaurant, and the tie you down and force feed you? No, it doesn’t happen that way. You are not given inputs. You choose what you will eat. You already choose your inputs.
It’s not just food. You choose all kinds of inputs. Your choices are there already at the level of inputs, not just your response to inputs.
“This is all I saw before and I think we’ve already established that a feeling of determinism isn’t expected under compatibilism, so I’ll disregard this part.”
Well maybe, but this is where we started. You said compatibilism would satisfy the criteria I set for free will. Those criteria were based on how free will is experienced or felt. If you now say that doesn’t apply to compatibilism then we are agreed, but I doubt we ARE agreed actually! 🙁
“So ultimately it seems like the distinction you’re making is kind of like the flat-earthers’ argument. The immediate intuitive sense that we all get from our everyday experience is that the earth is flat, so we should favor this over any alternatives that arise when we put in a bit more effort.”
I think this isn’t an apt analogy. After all, we have very clear evidence, amounting to proof, that the earth isn’t flat. But that isn’t the case with free will. Here’s how I see it.
1. Science, working via methodological naturalism, says the only factors it can find in our thinking and hence our decision-making are natural ones, all defined by laws of physics that don’t vary. Hence the brain processes by which we make a decision are determined by laws, initial states and inputs, and hence in principle predictable. And hence also determined by those physical laws and processes. There is no process outside of them. (I am leaving aside here any quantum indeterminacy, which may or may not apply to brains, and in any case only allows for randomness, not choice.)
2. Naturalists therefore say that this is indeed all there is (i.e. naturalism isn’t just a methodological matter, but a reality). i.e. our “choices” are determined, and then they can decide if they are compatibilists or not.
3. But others say that our actions are not determined. If they are dualists (or something like this), they can say there are other elements in the mix. They cannot easily offer scientific evidence, because the above logic holds. But they say that free will is in fact our experience, and just like there are other things (e.g. the reality of the external world, the existence of other minds, the constancy of the laws of physics and mathematics) we can’t prove, but assume based on sensible criteria like the ones I have listed, so it is sensible to accept free will as a reality.
4. So the argument comes down to this. On one side are those who say naturalistic science is a proven source of truth and free will is just an illusion and so our choices are determined. On the other side are those who say naturalistic science is an unproven assumption, and our universal experience of free will, and our apparent inability to live without this assumption, are more reliable in this case than a science that restricts itself to the physical/natural, and so we should accept we have free will which cannot be satisfactorily explained by naturalistic science.
So the argument for free will depends on subjective experience, as does the argument for the external world, etc. It is then missing the point to say it is subjective. Of course it is, that is its strength.
I can understand why people take the first view, because they want to be consistent, but I think it founders in many ways. I think it makes more sense to trust our experience in this case and accept that science is limited at this point.
I’m not sure I follow how your previous comment clarifies the distinction, so let me try asking a different way. If the subjective experience is defined to be the same under compatibilism and LFW, why should we privilege LFW as the correct description on the basis of the subjective experience itself?
Travis, the subjective experience may be the same regardless of which belief we hold, but that doesn’t mean our subjective experience equally validates either belief.
Take an example. Two people argue over whether the water in a bowl is hot or cold. They both dip their hands in. It turns out it was cold. They both experience the same thing (the water was cold), but that experience validates one’s belief but invalidates the other.
I say it is similar here. Our universal experience is feeling that we have free will. I think very few people who believe in compatibilism experience something they would call compatibilism (i.e. determinism that is only free in the sense of not being externally forced), I agree with you that they also have an experience of apparent free will. Same experience, which tends to support free will and not support compatibilism. Compatibilism is a philosophical construct to explain why we are determined but don’t feel like we are.
“How is that different?”
You said “Compatibilism does not imply determinism. It is merely compatible with determinism.” But the definition says under compatibilism, free will is compatible with determinism. They are different propositions. One mentions free will, the other doesn’t.
“In your reply to Travis, you stated “Compatibilism is defined as determinism and free will are both true and compatible.” But that is not how it is defined in SEP nor how it is defined in Wikipedia. I have not come across that way of defining, except in your posts.”
It is defined in the SEP as “Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism.” If you believe in compatibilism, then you believe that is true, i.e. that we have free will and that is compatible with us being determined. If you didn’t believe that, you’d be something else – a dualist or an incompatibilist, but not a compatibilist.
“As best I can tell, determinism is not a well defined thesis. If there is one errant particle somewhere in the cosmos, then determinism is false. The idea depends on the present being a consequence of the past. But past and present are dubious terms, given Einstein’s relativity and his demonstration of problems with the concept of simultaneity. We can talk of determinism in a local setting, but it is dubious as a cosmos-wide concept.”
I think this is an unnecessarily theoretical and complex set of ideas.
(1) We are discussing human free will, not the entire universe. There are, if quantum physics is true, zillions of “errant” particles in the universe, but that doesn’t necessarily negate determinism in the human mind.
(2) Yes, physicists say all sorts of theoretical things about time, but that again doesn’t really affect human free will. The argument for free will is practical, and practically, we all experience time and understand how it works. The past came before, the future comes after.
“You choose all kinds of inputs. Your choices are there already at the level of inputs, not just your response to inputs.”
How do you think we make choices then? What in our brain prevents it being the case that our initial brain state, external inputs to our brain and our brain processes fully define how we make a choice? What else is there? What makes the choice if it isn’t our brain processes?
You seem to be seeing a difference, where there is no difference.
The entire discussion was about free will. So free will was there implicitly, even if not explicit. Again, you are seeing a difference where there is none.
Yes, quite. And it nowhere states that determinism is true. The expression “is compatible with” does not mean “is true”.
That I believe A is compatible with B, and that I believe A does not entail that I believe B.
For example, I believe and have always believed that being a Christian is compatible with buying lottery tickets. But, back when I was a Christian, I never bought a lottery ticket.
It doesn’t negate determinism in the mind of somebody who is ideologically committed to determinism. But it should negate it for somebody who is concerned about logic.
Then why are we even arguing about free will? Surely the argument that determinism denies free will is already an unnecessarily theoretical and complex set of ideas.
Our perception is very good about noticing opportunities for us to satisfy our needs and wants.
Here’s an analogy. There is a west wind blowing. The yachtsman wants to sail west. But the wind would blow his yacht east. So he manages to configure his boat so that he can sail into the wind (known as tacking).
The brain somehow manages to reconfigure itself in ways that support our needs and wants, even when that is tough going. It is part of what brains do.
The compatibilist belief is not invalidated. The lack of conscious access to the full causal chain is typically part of that belief.
Then I don’t think you have a fair understanding of what compatibilists expect to experience in virtue of their beliefs.
My understanding is that compatibilism isn’t trying to explain anything – that’s what neuroscience, psychology, etc… is for. Compatibilism is an attempt to clarify our terms and identify the most appropriate way to talk about freedom, responsibility, and everything related to the experience of choice. What matters to us is that our experience of choice is sufficient to satisfy our sense of autonomy and control – to feel ownership of our decisions. Compatibilism recognizes that the subjective phenomenon is the only relevant factor for this, and so says that our historical conception and use of the term “free will” is best constrained to the level of first person experience. Under this understanding, when we dig deeper and come to believe that deterministic brain processes underpin the experience, we’re now talking about the means by which free will is constructed, not free will itself. The compatibilist is arguing that we are muddying the waters when we start to incorporate factors beyond the first person experience in our definition of free will. Furthermore, I would go on to suggest that language which disassociates agents from their neurological state – the most important factor in a choice – is a gross error, and that this is a common feature of incompatibilist argumentation. At least that’s how I see it.
I see then that you are a compatibilist in that you see free will and determinism as being compatible, but you are not a determinist. So that makes you something else on this issue as well – say a dualist or a dual action monist or something else. So my interest is in what you actually think is going on.
“The brain somehow manages to reconfigure itself in ways that support our needs and wants, even when that is tough going. It is part of what brains do.”
So this is now the key thing for me to understand. So does the brain do it following physical laws, or is there something else involved? If so, what else is involved, do you think?
Hi Travis, I’m finding this dual discussion very interesting. I think of all matters I ever discuss on the web, questions relating to free will and determinism are probably the ones where people are most likely to find others’ views quite difficult to understand or think reasonable. But let’s see if we can explore further.
“I don’t think you have a fair understanding of what compatibilists expect to experience in virtue of their beliefs.”
That is not a question I am thinking about. My interest is in what people actually experience. And I still think that most people, even compatibilisits and determinists, actually feel they experience freedom to choose. Of course they may interpret their experience as illusory, but even that word (which I have seen used) is a giveaway – an illusion is something that is experienced even if our judgment is that it isn’t real.
So I think compatibilists and determinists feel they experience free will but they believe it is either an illusion or at least needs to be properly interpreted. And it seems that you agree with this, for you say: “What matters to us is that our experience of choice is sufficient to satisfy our sense of autonomy and control – to feel ownership of our decisions. “
So my argument still is that our near universal experience that feels like free will is an important piece of evidence. To call it an illusion on the basis of science that assumes naturalism is not dealing wth this evidence rightly. The matter warrants far more investigation than that.
“Furthermore, I would go on to suggest that language which disassociates agents from their neurological state – the most important factor in a choice – is a gross error, and that this is a common feature of incompatibilist argumentation. At least that’s how I see it.”
Well it seems to me that compatibilists tend to use words in ways that are ambiguous, and this tends to obscure the logic that a determined choice cannot be free in the sense that most people mean it.
An example is Daniel Dennett. Quite a few years ago I read his two books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. I found them quite frustrating to read because while I could understand every sentence I read, I couldn’t see any coherent argument through each chapter. I felt he was playing with words to avoid the obvious conclusion. I am happy to agree that this may have been my lack of understanding, but it seems I wasn’t alone in my view. One reviewer wrote of Dennett’s views as expressed in his writings as being that “certain questions cannot be asked or at best do not make sense. The job of the philosopher is to find those questions and expunge them”. I also saw this in several accounts of the 2012 workshop, Moving Naturalism Forwards, where the participants, all eminent naturalists, really struggled with the question of free will and determinism. Several felt the subjects was “a philosophical black hole” and they concluded it would be better to use the words “voluntary” and “involuntary” – which seems to me to be yet another example of using words to hide the obvious, that there viewpoints contain inconsistencies.
So I keep trying to pin down and understand how naturalism can imply anything other than total determinism (or maybe random unchosen actions id quantum effects occur in the brain), but I seem unable to get anyone to explain how a physical world can allow any genuine choice. But I keep trying to find out.
I’m sorry guys, my blog seems to be badly misbehaving. I just posted a reply and all the comments disappeared again. I don’t know why. They are all in the database, so I can get them back, but I need to work out what is going on.
Your blog is expressing its free will.
First, let’s do away with the talk of illusion. To take a cue from a Sean Carroll post, we don’t speak of baseball being an illusion just because it isn’t written into the fabric of the universe (fwiw, I agree with pretty much everything he says in that post). There is a level of description at which baseball exists, and nobody in this discussion is in the determinist + incompatibilist camp, so “illusion” is not an appropriate framing.
Second, you’re emphasizing a need for more investigation. We agree that the subjective experience is an important piece of evidence. Hopefully we can also agree that we can’t stop there and that we also need to account for the science which speaks to that evidence. I think compatibilism is the best way of synthesizing those perspectives (so far). How does LFW incorporate the scientific evidence for the extremely strong correlations between subjective experience and brain processes that can be described in terms of electrochemical interactions, the evidence for the division and interaction of conscious and subconscious activity, the psychology of priming and similar subconscious influences on choice, etc…?
This goes both ways. Whereas you think compatibilists are being ambiguous, I think incompatibilists are being too narrow, requiring agency to reside at some fundamental level of reality in order to be considered real. And I disagree that “most people” think that freedom has to exist at that level. “Most people” aren’t thinking that deeply and are just relying on the existence of freedom and choice at the level of subjective experience, where compatibilists are happy to agree. Compatibilism is really a sort of pragmatism, opting for the definition that works best.
Because you only allow that “genuine choice” is an uncaused cause at the most fundamental level of reality. We’re disagreeing with your limited scope of what counts as genuine choice.
Re: disappearing blog comments, see https://wordpress.org/support/topic/disappearing-comments-5/. Do you have both Simple Comment Editing and Tako Moveable Comments installed?
Hi guys, I think I have finally resolved this issue with lost comments. Sorry it took so long. I knew what I had to do, which was upload a backup database, which was about 70 Mb. But my host only allows 50 Mb uploads by default, and the option to enlarge the size limit wasn’t working. It too me a while to find a work-around by uploading the database to another site where I could set a higher limit, selecting the table that had been corrupted, and then uploading that (which was much smaller) to this site.
I don’t know if you want to continue the discussion, but I will probably write some response. Thanks for your patience. And thanks too Travis for the information on the plugin clash, for I’m pretty sure that was the cause.
I see that some comments have suddenly appeared. And some of those seem new to me, which is to say that I had not previously seen them.
I do not consider myself a dualist. And I have no idea what “dual action monist” is supposed to imply.
“Following physical laws” doesn’t actual mean anything, at least as you are using the expression. Following the laws of physics is something that physicists do when practicing their science. It isn’t something that the world does.
One of the mistakes that people make, is to attempt to apply logic to the world. But the world itself is neither logical nor illogical. The world just does what the world does, and logic is not involved.
We humans make logical models of the world or of aspects of the world. And we apply logic within those logical models. The world is not obliged to fit our models. It is the other way around. We are obliged to make our models fit the world well enough for our purpose. But we cannot reasonably expect a perfect fit.
Laws of physics are rules within our models. They are not rules that the world is obliged to follow. We require that our models follow those rules, but we have no control over whether the world itself follows them.
If our logical models do not allow for free will, yet our experience suggests that we have free will, that ought to be evidence that our models are inadequate for dealing with those aspects of our behavior that are related to free will.
Hi Neil, thanks for continuing the conversation. Let me ask you a couple of clarifying (for me) questions.
““Following physical laws” doesn’t actual mean anything, at least as you are using the expression. …. The world is not obliged to fit our models. It is the other way around. We are obliged to make our models fit the world well enough for our purpose. But we cannot reasonably expect a perfect fit.”
I trained as a hydrologist, so let me use a water example. If rain falls on a catchment (or watershed), it follows a regular pattern that takes it downhill into small channels, then into larger channels, into defined small streams and finally into the river until it reaches the catchment outlet. Every time rain falls, it does the same thing, unless the catchment is changed in some way.
I would say the rain behaves that way because it follows physical laws – in this case gravity causes it to run downhill, friction causes erosion that creates the channels.
How would you describe what happens there i a way that fits your statements above?
“If our logical models do not allow for free will, yet our experience suggests that we have free will, that ought to be evidence that our models are inadequate for dealing with those aspects of our behavior that are related to free will.”
I agree with this. So (1) what logical models do you think apply to the question of free will, (2) do you think our logical models about free will are inadequate, and (3) if so where are they inadequate?
Hi Travis, I’ll come back to your last comment, in case you wish to continue the discussion.
““illusion” is not an appropriate framing”
I’m happy to change the words, but the questions still remain, and I still don’t see any answers that are meaningful.
“I think incompatibilists are being too narrow, requiring agency to reside at some fundamental level of reality in order to be considered real.”
“Because you only allow that “genuine choice” is an uncaused cause at the most fundamental level of reality. We’re disagreeing with your limited scope of what counts as genuine choice.”
I don’t agree. I am not talking about fundamental levels of reality but about normal human experience. I think the definition of the “problem” is simple. I am hypothetically about to choose whether to go out the movies tonight or stay home. I have considered the two options and the possible reasons why I would do one or the other. As a result of those thoughts and all the prior inputs, my brain is in a certain state. As I make that choice either (1) the choice is determined now that all the inputs and processes have occurred, or else (2) I can still make a choice among options. Which is true?
I think that is how ordinary people think about free will, but compatibilists seem to avoid the question. And I think that #2 is what is required for moral responsibility.
“How does LFW incorporate the scientific evidence for the extremely strong correlations between subjective experience and brain processes that can be described in terms of electrochemical interactions, the evidence for the division and interaction of conscious and subconscious activity, the psychology of priming and similar subconscious influences on choice, etc…?”
I’m not sure I fully understand the question here. But I accept all the physical processes that neuroscientists discover, and I agree with the conclusion that if all those processes completely described what is going on, then the final action is determined and there wasn’t LFW. So if I am to believe in LFW, there must be something more than the physical processes in addition to all of them. Sometimes, perhaps often, the physical processes determine the action (a reflex action is an example), but sometimes they don’t. The only way that outcome can be true, I think, is for something like dualism to be true.
I’m more inclined to say that the rain does what the rain does, and we design our physical laws to follow the behavior of the rain.
None of them.
Logic is tied up with language. The use of logical models is tied up with language. We want to communicate our models, and best to do that with language.
In our logical models, all decision making is on the basis of logic and truth. But actual human decision making is mostly pragmatic. Much human learning is described as “trial and error”, which is based on pragmatic decision making (do whatever it is that works). But when we translate that to language, we tend to express the decision making in terms of logic and truth, even when that does not fit.
Logic and truth are community properties. We mostly agree on what is true and on what is logical. If all of our decision making is on the basis of logic and truth, then there is no room left for personal decision making. And that’s roughly what determinists are arguing.
Pragmatic judgement, on the other hand, is personal. What works for me might not be identical to what works for you. If human decision making is pragmatic, then we each weigh our choices to see what is going to work best. And yes, we sometime make bad choices even then. But with pragmatic choices, our decision making is autonomous. It is our decision rather than a decision forced by community standards of logic and truth.
The whole idea of agency, the idea that we are autonomous decision makers, can only fit if our decision making is pragmatic rather than based on truth and logic. And compatibilism really just says that decision making is pragmatic.
The language of the timing in this question is odd. Are you asking about the time when you’re “about to choose” or “as I make that choice”? The choice is made when we have the subjective experience of making the choice, regardless of whether it was determined or not.
Are you really just asking the “could have done otherwise” question? My response is that if the universe were completely identical up to point at which the subjective experience of choice occurred then no, you could not have done otherwise. And the choice would still have the same uncoerced feeling.
“I’m more inclined to say that the rain does what the rain does, and we design our physical laws to follow the behavior of the rain.”
But surely that means that if we’ve “designed” or expressed our physical laws well, then the rain follows those laws. Not because it consciously chooses to follow them, but because the laws properly describe what happens?
If that is the case, then we can say the same about brain processes. Neurones and synapses do what neurones and synapses do, and neuroscientists observe what they do and have developed physical laws that describe those processes. And so, inasmuch as the laws are correct, the neurones and synapses follow those laws, not because they choose to, but because the laws correctly describe that neurones and synapses do.
Do you agree?
“Are you really just asking the “could have done otherwise” question? My response is that if the universe were completely identical up to point at which the subjective experience of choice occurred then no, you could not have done otherwise.”
So we don’t have libertarian free will, in your view. Which I knew to be your view. So getting back to where we started, I say that IS NOT the universal human experience. Most people believe we have free will because they believe they experience it every day. Even people who conclude as you do find it difficult to always live and feel what they believe to be true. Some examples:
Cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky says of free will: “Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief …. “
Philosopher John Searle: “In order to engage in rational decision making we have to presuppose free will.”
Philosopher Saul Smilanski: free will is a “morally necessary illusion …. it is vitally important …. to maintain or promote crucial moral or personal beliefs and practices.”
Psychologist Susan Blackmore says that she struggled with thinking how could she live her life without free will, but taught herself to think it was OK.
Edward Slingerland: “There may well be individuals who lack this sense [of feeling they are free], and who can quite easily conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental, mechanistic terms, but we label such people ‘psychopaths’.”
So I say that when faced with my 3 criteria, the idea that we have no LFW doesn’t fare well (regardless whether someone is a compatibilist or an incompatibilist):
1. Our experience of it is NOT consistent across time. Few people ever feel they experience no free will, and the few who do, like Susan, have to train themselves to think contrary to their natural feelings.
2. LFW, not no free will, is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way, unless they train themselves otherwise.
3. Believing we have no free will doesn’t help us live productive and meaningful lives – studies show it has the opposite effect.
So just as I think we are justified in believing our experience of an external world populated with external minds is a true perception, so I think there are good arguments for believing that our perception of LFW is a true perception.
I don’t agree with that. It is not how I understand the meaning of “follows”.
However, I would agree that the behavior of the water is consistent with physical laws. Notice that I avoided using “follows”.
Let me illustrate using a particle and Newton’s laws. I will greatly over-dramatize to help make the point.
Scenario 1: A particle notices that there is a force. So it checks its physics books, calculates how much to accelerate. And then it accelerates as calculated.
Scenario 2: A particle feels in the mood for accelerating. So it accelerates because why not. The scientist looks at the acceleration, uses Newton’s laws and computes a force. The scientist then says that there was the force that he computed.
Both of those are consistent with physical law. For the first, I would say that the particle follows Newton’s laws. For the second, I would say that it is the scientist who is following Newton’s laws.
For scenario 1, we would have a deterministic world. For scenario 2, the world is not necessarily deterministic.
I see scenario 2 as a better account of how science works.
You are simply rejecting any possible validity for compatibilist accounts of free will. You’re saying that free will is either an uncaused cause, or it doesn’t exist at all. It’s like saying baseball is either a platonic essence, or it doesn’t exist at all. There is no room for defining things at different levels of description, or as constructions. Nothing you said in the previous comment argues against compatibilist free will. The freedom is experienced and located at the phenomenal level, regardless of whether there is an uncaused cause or a deterministic cause from an omniscient third-person perspective.
Going back to the “could of done otherwise” question, the point was that our experience is of freely making a choice, and being aware of that choice relative to other options. In order for the choice to be different, the universe itself will also have to be different (even if only within the brain of the agent), but then again we would have the experience of having freely made a different choice and have been aware of the choice relative to other options. Regardless of the choice, that experience is what we call “free will”. We have access to the experiential perspective, and we will probably never have access to all the details of the molecules that make up an agent and influence a choice, so why prefer to define freedom at the level that is inscrutable? And if believing in free will “help[s] us live productive and meaningful lives”, why do you prefer to make it harder to believe in free will by discounting a definition that is compatible with both uncaused causes and determinism? Why not prefer the definition that makes it easier for more people to live productive and meaningful lives?
“However, I would agree that the behavior of the water is consistent with physical laws. Notice that I avoided using “follows”.”
That was what I meant, so that is OK.
“For scenario 1, we would have a deterministic world. For scenario 2, the world is not necessarily deterministic.”
OK, let’s go with that. So neuroscientists have investigated how the brain works, and found certain chemical and electrical processes occur. They can describe these processes via physical laws, which, as far as they can observe, always describe the processes they observe. So the brain behaviour is consistent. (Of course if there is some fault in the brain, due to injury or sickness or birth defect, then different laws will best describe the processes, but I am talking about when none of those things appear to apply.)
The neuroscientists say that the processes are physical, and describe by consistent laws. If the same physical conditions apply, then the result will be the same, because the laws accurately describe the processes.
So do you see anywhere that the processes described by the laws can be changed, ie. when the same physical conditions apply the result may be different?
“You are simply rejecting any possible validity for compatibilist accounts of free will. You’re saying that free will is either an uncaused cause, or it doesn’t exist at all.”
I’m sorry if I haven’t been clear, but I haven’t meant to say that. I specifically talked about libertarian free will (LFW), which isn’t the definition of free will offered by compatibilism. I accept the compatibilist argument that if the physical brain processes are all there is going on, then we cannot have LFW, only compatibilist “free will”, which I am not talking about because I don’t think it is what most people mean by the term free will.
Compatibilism says that free will is compatible with determinism. If you think that compatibilism best describes the way things are, then I presume you are saying that our choices are determined, but free in the sense of being in accordance with our desires, choices and reasons. Now I would say that most people don’t feel they experience that their choices are determined. Therefore most people don’t feel they experience compatibilism.
So I think you are incorrect to say that “Nothing you said in the previous comment argues against compatibilist free will.” Your argument is based on the experience of free will (so called) but ignores the feeling of being determined.
So my three criteria suggest that determinism isn’t true to human experience, LFW is, and therefore we have a prima facie case against determinism (and hence compatibilism) and for LFW.
“Why not prefer the definition that makes it easier for more people to live productive and meaningful lives?”
There are many reasons:
(1) It doesn’t help, it hinders.Determinism is an essential part of compatibilism that you seem to ignore. Studies show that if people feel they are determined, they behave “worse” (i.e. less prosocially).
(2) Most people would not accept what seems to me to be the sophistry of compatibilism – an attempt to have both determinism and free will, when those two things are plain (to common sense at any rate) opposed.
(3) I think compatibilism is inconsistent at definition. At the time of making a choice, it is true that that choice takes place in our brains, in accordance with our wishes and reasons. But those desires and reasons were determined by physical process that began for us outside our choice and outside our brains – in the genetics of our conception and the influence of our upbringing and environment. So ultimately, we didn’t actually have control over the choice at all, we only had apparent control of the last stage in the cause and effect process.
(4) It doesn’t accord with everyday experience, and therefore is less likely to actually be true.
I think the key in our discussion is whether both determinism and compatibilistic choice can, and should be required to, pass my 3 criteria.
What does it mean to say that they changed? What does it mean to say that they are different?
You are allowing yourself to be bewitched by language.
Yes, our choices are determined — by us. “Free will” would be meaningless if it implied that we had no role in determining our choices.
Disagree. As previously noted several times, compatibilism does not entail an experience of determinism. Compatibilism acknowledges both the felt experience and the separate external evidence which points toward “deterministic” processes. The role of determinism in a compatibilist perspective is not to inform the felt experience, but to recognize the role of that separate external evidence in addition to the subjective experience. This is semantic and pragmatic. The argument is that the most useful definition of free will is the one that operates at the level of first person experience. This is the surface level where nearly everybody’s everyday experience operates when they are concerned with matters relating to the concept of free will (outside of philosophical debates).
If you only consider the first person. We also experience third person evidence to the contrary. Thus compatibilism.
You missed the point. I wasn’t asking about a definition of free will that includes the casual explanation of choice at the most fundamental level. I was asking about a definition of free will that only exists at the level of experience regardless of the underlying causal structure. See previous analogies to baseball. So I wasn’t asking about compatibilism as a whole, I was only asking about the definition of free will which operates only at the level of experience. That definition on its own is agnostic with regards to the underlying causal explanation and would be compatible with both determinism and an agency as an uncaused cause. To state it again, if our belief in free will helps us live productive and meaningful lives, why not prefer a definition of free will that ties only to the subjective experience and sets aside the stumbling blocks of also incorporating the inscrutable causal explanation beneath that experience?
This is the other big problem I see with these arguments. You’re begging the question for a non-physical self by inferring that “we” is something other than the physical processes which occur when “we” choose. Yes, genetics, environment, etc… all influence our choices, but the act of choosing is more fully described by the processes happening within our brains that constitute a large part of our identity. “We” are not separate from those processes, and “we” take on all those external influences as part of our identity as they shape us.
“You are allowing yourself to be bewitched by language.”
I think language is an issue, but I am trying to clarify what you think and understand whether it makes sense.
“What does it mean to say that they changed? What does it mean to say that they are different?”
I’m not sure why you ask this, because it seems to me that those words have quite clear meanings. But I’ll try to clarify. The processes in our brains can be described by laws of chemistry and electricity. For example, when a nerve impulse reaches a synapse it triggers the neuron to release a chemical neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitter drifts across the gap between the two neurons and initiates an action there, and so on. These processes are determined by inputs, previous processes and the known behaviour of the components of the brain. That means that granted the initial states and the known behaviour of neurons, synapses, etc, a certain result will occur. As far as neuroscience is concerned, if the same states occur again, there will be the same result.
So I’m wondering what you think. If the exact same states and inputs could re-occur, could there be a different result? If so what, in your view, would make the different result?
“compatibilism does not entail an experience of determinism”
No, but it entails the reality of determinism, and that is not a reality that many people experience or feel.
“The role of determinism in a compatibilist perspective is not to inform the felt experience”
No, I understand that. Neither is it the role of non-determinism to inform the felt experience in a LFW perspective. That is to confuse our theorising with reality. But once we postulate either LFW or determinism, then it is reasonable to ask if either of them conform to felt experience, and I am saying that LFW does conform and determinism doesn’t.
“If you only consider the first person. We also experience third person evidence to the contrary. Thus compatibilism.”
I think this is fair comment. I accept that there is evidence either way. The scientific evidence suggests determinism, the experiential evidence suggests LFW. My point is that there is evidence either way, and we have to deal with it. But I also say that compatibilism tries to have the science and an appearance of the experience, but it doesn’t actually conform to our real experience. We really think our actions are not determined. We really feel that even if the same physical conditions pertained we could have chosen differently. Compatibilism and determinism say they couldn’t have been different. So our experience is contrary to what compatibilism says.
“I was asking about a definition of free will that only exists at the level of experience regardless of the underlying causal structure. “
I’m sorry Travis, but I don’t understand what you are looking for here. As I have just outlined, I don’t think we can talk about an experience of free will divorced from an underlying determinism. Humans feel our actions are not determined, that we can make genuine choices, that if we re-ran the events we could have chosen differently. That is fundamental to being human. I think compatibilism tries to use words to disguise that reality.
“You’re begging the question for a non-physical self by inferring that “we” is something other than the physical processes which occur when “we” choose. Yes, genetics, environment, etc… all influence our choices, but the act of choosing is more fully described by the processes happening within our brains that constitute a large part of our identity. “We” are not separate from those processes, and “we” take on all those external influences as part of our identity as they shape us.”
Yes, I’m sure my language isn’t always fair and precise, I’m sorry. I think that is the lot of being human. Even Susan Blackmore, in my post following this, uses terms that are contrary to what she actually believes is true.
But let me clarify. I am NOT positing a separate non-physical self in what I am writing here. Let’s assume, to illustrate, that “we” are no more than our brains. It is still true that “we”, that is our brains, don’t have control over the processes. Control implies the ability to make a difference, make a change, and you have agreed that under your understanding “we” cannot do that. The processes are determined, and cannot be different, granted all the inputs and brain states. “We” cannot control the processes, under naturalism or determinism, because “we” ARE the processes, and those processes are determined.
I was hoping that you would think about it seriously enough to recognize that the meanings are not at all clear.
The expression “exact same states” is meaningless.
A speck of dust lands on my computer. Has the computer state changed?
I move my computer to the next room. Has the computer state changed? Has the state of my brain changed?
While I was writing this, the milky way galaxy moved a million miles. And my computer is inside the milky way galaxy. Did that movement of the galaxy change the state of my computer? Did it change the state of my brain?
Wow, after all this back and forth I think we may have actually made some progress. There are a couple things you said here that have helped me see the disconnect.
This may be the central point of departure. I see no issue with handling concepts at different levels of description. This is why I kept raising the baseball analogy. It would be confused, futile and meaningless for us to require that all talk about baseball address the underlying physics. I think there’s something similar going on with free will, especially when we’re talking about how it impacts the average Jane or social policies. I think it is probably even a detriment in most cases if we drag along the underlying causal explanation when we consider the role of free will. So, pragmatically, I think we are better off collectively defining free will at the level of experience and then let the philosophers and neuroscientists work from there to separately explain how we arrive at that experience.
You also said
I think this implies another disagreement about the appropriate levels of description. Would you say that the concepts of “control” and “change” are logically incompatible with a deterministic universe? When we say that a computer controls the signals to a monitor to produce a change on the display, would you say that this is actually an invalid explanation if the universe is deterministic?
“I was hoping that you would think about it seriously enough to recognize that the meanings are not at all clear.”
I think you haven’t made a case, and that we know enough about what the words mean to make a judgment on what we are discussing.
“A speck of dust lands on my computer. Has the computer state changed?”
Not in any relevant way.
“I move my computer to the next room. Has the computer state changed? Has the state of my brain changed?”
(1) Yes, if it is turned on (its state is always changing), but not because of your movement. (2) Obviously.
“While I was writing this, the milky way galaxy moved a million miles. And my computer is inside the milky way galaxy. Did that movement of the galaxy change the state of my computer?”
No. Its state changed for other reasons if it was turned on.
“Did it change the state of my brain?”
No. But your brain state changed for other reasons.
So I think there are quite clear answers to your questions, and I can see no reason why you cannot answer my questions, which can be considered hypotheticals if you like:
1. If the brain states were the same, would the choice be the same (i.e. determined)?
2. If not determined, and hence the choice not necessarily the same, what changes the brain processes?
“Wow, after all this back and forth I think we may have actually made some progress.”
I’m glad you feel positive. I think I have come to some conclusions, but I’m afraid I don’t think they are at all the same as yours.
“It would be confused, futile and meaningless for us to require that all talk about baseball address the underlying physics.”
That is true. If I want to report on the result of the game, for example, I just need to give the score etc. But if I am discussing why the ball flies in a parabolic path, I do need to discuss the physics and the maths. So it depends on what we are discussing.
“I think there’s something similar going on with free will, especially when we’re talking about how it impacts the average Jane or social policies.”
But we are NOT discussing how determinism or free will impacts on the average Jane. We are discussing whether determinism is true, free will is real and whether the two are compatible. The discussion of how Jane feels is only a piece of evidence that I think is relevant. And a discussion of whether determinism is true, free will is real and whether the two are compatible definitely requires us to consider all aspects.
“I think we are better off collectively defining free will at the level of experience and then let the philosophers and neuroscientists work from there to separately explain how we arrive at that experience.”
I am happy to define free will at the level of experience, which I think we both agree means that we define it as real. But we are discussing whether determinism is true, free will is real and whether the two are compatible, and drawing on what the philosophers and neuroscientists are saying. So it wouldn’t be helpful for both of us to state a viewpoint but not talk about the truth of the matter.
“Would you say that the concepts of “control” and “change” are logically incompatible with a deterministic universe?”
No. The question isn’t whether something controls or changes something else, but what does the controlling and what effects the change. If determinism is true then the physical processes do the controlling including control of human “choice”. But if LFW is true, then the physical processes control some things, but human choice controls other things.
“When we say that a computer controls the signals to a monitor to produce a change on the display, would you say that this is actually an invalid explanation if the universe is deterministic?”
Not at all. But it would be reasonable to ask what controls or causes the computer processes, and the answer would be the programmer and operator, and “behind” them either more physical process (determinism) or human choice (LFW).
I still think that compatibilism doesn’t provide for what normal people mean by choice.
The brain states are the same;
the brain states are not the same.
These two are indistinguishable. You have, indeed, bewitched yourself with language.
States do not exist in the world. States exist in our logical models of the world. We do not currently have an adequate logical model of the brain such as would allow us to make sense of talk about brain states.
Get back to that speck of dust on the computer. If we are talking about imagined physical states of the computer, then of course that changes the state — depending, of course, on our imagination. If we are talking about states in our logical models of the computer, then the speck of dust does not change those modeled states.
Do you see the point yet — probably not.
Talk about brain states is a way of spouting nonsense, while trying to sound sophiscticated.
In more detail: Before we can talk of brain states, we need some sort of formal model of the brain that delineates what will count as a state. We do not currently have such a model. We may never have such a model.
There still more progress being made here. Let’s keep digging.
Yes. Keep that last sentence in mind as we move forward.
Yes. But the question of whether free will is real depends on the definition of free will. So let’s look at section 2.0 of the SEP entry, which gives us the following: “As should be clear from this short discussion of the history of the idea of free will, free will has traditionally been conceived of as a kind of power to control one’s choices and actions. When an agent exercises free will over her choices and actions, her choices and actions are up to her. But up to her in what sense? As should be clear from our historical survey, two common (and compatible) answers are: (i) up to her in the sense that she is able to choose otherwise, or at minimum that she is able not to choose or act as she does, and (ii) up to her in the sense that she is the source of her action.”
This is right in line with what we have been discussing – free will is real when the agent is the source of the choice and has the ability to choose otherwise. But now we have more definitions to contend with. What is an agent? What does it mean to be the source? What does it mean to be able to choose otherwise? We could end up traversing down an infinite regress of definitions, but fortunately you’ve saved us from doing that when you said
Oh good! If we define free will at the level of experience, why would we define the terms of free will – agents, sources, and choosing otherwise – at a different level? You’ve solved the problem!
Oh no! Are you saying that the reality of free will depends on whether determinism is true? I thought we had just gotten past that…
Oh good! We can define control and change (choosing otherwise) above the level of fundamental processes. That puts us back on track for allowing free will to be defined at the higher level too.
Oh no! Our definitions have been squashed again. Back to defining everything in terms of fundamental processes. It’s astounding that baseball was invented and played before anybody ever sat down and worked out the physics behind everything. And thousands of kids learn and play the game without any idea of the maths. If they knew that is was just a really complicated illusion, they would probably stop playing baseball and give it up and become criminals instead. And imagine if those kids also learned that those physics are just descriptive models rather than ontologically exact definitions? Nihilism for everybody! We don’t know anything and nothing exists!
Sorry for the back-and-forth drama, but I thought maybe it would help drive the point home. When you said “it wouldn’t be helpful for both of us to state a viewpoint but not talk about the truth of the matter”, the implication is that “the truth of the matter” requires that we define and describe the world at the level of fundamental processes. The pragmatist in me completely rejects this. And you seem to want to reject it too because every time I accuse you of doing this, you say that it isn’t what you’re doing. But then when we try to settle on definitions, you continually push everything down a level. That’s fine if that is our goal. But you framed this article around three reasons for believing in free will. Those reasons apply to free will when it is defined at the level of experience, regardless of what we believe about souls, determinism, etc… That sounds like a pretty successful definition to me.
Uh oh. My most recent comment isn’t here anymore and I think I might have edited it after posting. Did the disappearing comments problem reappear?
No, it went into moderation for some reason, but it’s there. I think the disappearing comments problem is solved (I surely hope so). I’ll get back to replying soon.
This has been an enjoyable and stimulating conversation (for me at least), but I’m wondering if it is time to finish.
“The brain states are the same;
the brain states are not the same.
These two are indistinguishable. You have, indeed, bewitched yourself with language.”
Clearly, taken literally this is nonsense. A = B and A ≠ B cannot both be true. I know you know that, so I have to presume you are making a point about language. But the point has no substance to me without an explanation. So I have looked at the rest of your post for an explanation.
“States do not exist in the world. States exist in our logical models of the world. “
I think this is sophistry. You can say that states don’t exist, but the things they describe do indeed exist. So my brain is in a state that can be in principle described, even though too complex in practice for us to do so completely. And of course it will have changed before it can be described. But that doesn’t necessarily make the description unreal or inaccurate.
“We do not currently have an adequate logical model of the brain such as would allow us to make sense of talk about brain states.”
It depends what you mean by “adequate”. We don’t have complete logical models of the brain perhaps, certainly not complete system models, but we don’t need them to talk meaningfully about the brain. I don’t have a complete logical model of you, or of my computer, or of the internet, or of an atom, or of electricity or of almost anything in the world. But we having the discussion using the internet, computers, electricity, brains, etc. So I think this objection is also sophistry, I’m sorry.
“Do you see the point yet — probably not.”
Is this a gratuitous insult, or a genuine concern? If a concern, I can only say I am trying to understand, I have a reasonably high IQ, I am literate and educated, yet I don’t understand. I think you have not explained yourself enough, perhaps you are unable to explain yourself.
“Talk about brain states is a way of spouting nonsense, while trying to sound sophiscticated.”
Again, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I find there is much about brain processes and states on the internet, by people who know more about the brain than I do, and I presume you do. Here are a few references: Axon Collaterals and Brain States, Hidden Brain States that Regulate Performance and Decision Making Uncovered, Dreaming and the brain: Toward a cognitive neuroscience of conscious states, What is a Brain State?. Are they all spouting nonsense and trying to be sophisticated, or are they just being scientific?
So where do we go from here? It feels to me like you are playing games with me. Making outrageous statements that seem to have no basis, certainly not any basis that you have explained, and then insulting me if I question or disagree. I am happy to discuss with someone who I will never agree with, because I may learn. But I won’t learn if you write the way you have here.
So do you think it is work continuing?
I’m okay with ending this discussion. We are talking past each other. There’s little real discussion going on.
Thanks for your latest explanations. I’m sorry for the frustration you feel, and I’m sorry if I haven’t been consistent. I try, but I’m still learning on this subject. But I think you have misunderstood me. So let me try to explain clearly what I think, what I understand you to be saying and where I disagree.
1. I think free will requires that: we have options, we make the choice, we are not externally coerced, it feels like we have a free choice, we are able to choose differently, and our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry. This sort of choice is what people experience and most people believe we have, it is the basis of our ethics, law, moral responsibility and practical psychology. It is often described as LFW. (of course many of our choices are fully or partly controlled by physics, but LFW implies than not all are.) Determinism is the view that at least some of these LFW factors are NOT present in human choice (e.g. we are able to choose differently, and our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry), while some others are (e.g. we have options, we make the choice, we are not externally coerced, it feels like we have a free choice).
2. On these definitions, free will and determinism are mutually exclusive, so we are faced with a dilemma: which is true? Common human experience suggests that LFW is true, whereas naturalistic science suggests that determinism is true. There are three basic options to explain all this …..
3. I believe common human experience of LFW is a true understanding because (1) it meets similar requirements to our belief that the external world and other minds exist, (2) denying it entails too many contradictions and illogicalities, and (3) naturalism is an unproved assumption of science, and without that assumption, there is not reason to believe determinism is true. That is why I said I am happy to define free will by experience. On the other hand, many people trust naturalistic science over the reality of experience, and so believe in determinism.
4. The third alternative view is compatibilism, which arises, I suggest, because neither of the other two options are acceptable to some people – LFW seems contrary to the science while determinism is practically very difficult (some say impossible) to live with consistently. Compatibilism (I suggest) redefines free will by eliminating those factors in LFW that are contrary to determinism (so we are NOT able to choose differently, and our actions ARE fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry). Thus it is NOT free choice – it is choice but it is not free, it is constrained. This not what most people experience nor what they believe they are experiencing.
5. Thus it seems to me that compatibilism is just determinism with choice that is not free masquerading as free choice, by using an inadequate definition of free will. You make much of compatibilism feeling like free choice, but so would determinism feel like free choice if it is our reality. We feel we have free choice under all three options, the question is whether that is a true perception or not. Only one of the options believes that perception is true.
6. I think your baseball example (”It’s astounding that baseball was invented and played before anybody ever sat down and worked out the physics behind everything.”) is not helpful or relevant – humans have been thinking and watching things fall long before they understood synapses or gravity, but it doesn’t alter the fact that neuroscience and physics are useful understandings of reality.
So the question is, what do we disagree on?
I presume we could agree on basic definitions of the three options of LFW, incompatibilism and compatibilism (though doubtless you could improve my wording). We have each made a different choice about what we think is the true account of human choice, but I don’t think that is primarily what we have been disagreeing about. I think the disagreement may be that you think that because the three options all satisfy the requirement of feeling like our choice is free, then it doesn’t matter that under compatibilism the choice isn’t actually free, whereas I think the reality is the fundamental question.
I also think that (1) incompatibilism is so difficult to live consistently that most incompatibilists live most of their lives as if LFW is true, and (2) compatibilism tries to escape this inconsistency by hiding the inconsistency within the definition of free will, but to do this often requires a certain amount of using clever and ambiguous words to make the difficulties more fuzzy. As an example, the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop suggested that discussing free will was a “a philosophical black hole” (i.e. they didn’t have answers) so we should perhaps stop using the phrase “free will” and instead use “voluntary”, which glosses over the criteria for free will that I started with.
Now I’m presuming you won’t agree with all that, but it might be helpful to clarify exactly where you disagree.
OK, but the whole question is about the best way to define free will. I’m saying that it does more harm than good when the vast majority of our concern has to do with the subjective experience of freely making choices.
No you’re not. In the paragraph above your required that the low-level stuff be part of the definition. That goes beyond experience. The experience is compatible with both an uncaused cause or a hidden cause. The experience does not give preference to either low level description. This is a key disagreement. Are you relying on parsimony to claim that LFW is the superior extrapolation from the subjective experience? OK, but that would only be true if you ignore all other data.
By reality, you mean “lowest level description”, right? That is a question, but not necessary the question. You dismiss the baseball analogy but the same issue applies. What is the best level of description to use when we discuss X? If the goal is only to understand the interactions in baseball in terms of the underlying physics, then by all means, use the low level descriptions. But don’t define it that way, and don’t use those terms for the 99% of other baseball discussions. It’s counterproductive. Similarly, if the goal is to describe the experience of free choice at the lowest possible level, then yes, let’s look under the hood and use those terms. But don’t define it that way, and don’t use those terms for the 99% of other times when we’re really only concerned with the implications of free will at the experiential level. It’s counterproductive. Remember, this is about definitions. What is the best way to define free will given the implications of that definition? My contention that even if we only go by your own three reasons, we are best served by a high-level definition based only on experience, without regard for the low-level, inscrutable details of the most fundamental causes. Why is the definition which requires low-level considerations preferable?
This is good and helpful. I think it would be good to clarify and confirm what you are saying here, so I will ask some questions please.
First, did you agree with my criteria for LFW, and the subset of those criteria to define compatibilist free will?
” the whole question is about the best way to define free will. I’m saying that it does more harm than good when the vast majority of our concern has to do with the subjective experience of freely making choices.”
Are you saying here that the main issue for you is what we feel we experience, and not the underlying neuroscientific reality?
“I am happy to define free will by experience”
No you’re not. In the paragraph above your required that the low-level stuff be part of the definition. That goes beyond experience.”
Are you saying here that if we define free will by experience then we should ignore the underlying neuroscientific facts in that definition?
“That is a question, but not necessary the question. You dismiss the baseball analogy but the same issue applies. What is the best level of description to use when we discuss X? If the goal is only to understand the interactions in baseball in terms of the underlying physics, then by all means, use the low level descriptions. But don’t define it that way, and don’t use those terms for the 99% of other baseball discussions.”
Are you saying here that we can and should have different definitions depending on what we are trying to explain? That is, that we should use an experience-based definition in some cases and a neurological definition in other cases? If so, what might be a case for each of these definitions of free will?
“My contention that even if we only go by your own three reasons, we are best served by a high-level definition based only on experience, without regard for the low-level, inscrutable details of the most fundamental causes. Why is the definition which requires low-level considerations preferable?”
Are you saying that the neuroscience of thinking is inscrutable? Do you think that “the definition which requires low-level considerations” adds nothing to our understanding? If not, what do you think it adds?
It depends on the context. The role that the term “free will” plays in our societies is primarily only relevant to the extent that it describes the first person experience of making uncoerced choices.
To the extent that the underlying neuroscientific facts are irrelevant to the context, yes.
Close. I’m not sure it makes sense to have different definitions. Rather, I would say that we should define free will at the level of experience, and then for the philosophical and neuroscientific investigations into causation, we say that we are reviewing the possible explanations for the free will phenomenon. Call it “free-willology” if you like. When people discuss the physics of baseball, they make this same distinction. They don’t just say that they’re talking about baseball. They say they’re talking about the “physics of”. They’ve separated out the two levels of description.
At sufficiently low-levels of detail, yes. We don’t have perfect access and models for cognitive processes. The quality of our access and models is constantly improving, but I think it will be a while before we have the fidelity to provide detailed descriptions of the activities underlying discrete thoughts. And then there’s the hard problem. I don’t know whether we’ll ever cross that bridge.
No, it does, just like the physics of baseball adds to our understanding. But in the majority of everyday cases it is actually an unhelpful distraction that detracts from our ability to operate (think of a batter trying to calculate their swing). Like I’ve said all along, this is really a pragmatic question, as are most (all?) semantic questions.
OK Travis, thanks for those clarifications and confirmations. I want to explore what that says to me and check if I have got that correct.
“I would say that we should define free will at the level of experience, and then for the philosophical and neuroscientific investigations into causation, we say that we are reviewing the possible explanations for the free will phenomenon”
So let us agree that at the level of experience, free will is what we experience, or at least think we experience. So let us now review the possible explanations of the free will phenomenon, as you suggest.
Simplistically, let us say that the two options are that we actually have LFW, or that we don’t. I say we have LFW. You say we don’t, we have choice which our brains make and is not forced on us by external agents, but is not LFW because if we re-ran the universe, we couldn’t make a different choice, is that correct?
Now you said previously: “I’m saying that it does more harm than good when the vast majority of our concern has to do with the subjective experience of freely making choices.” And now you say: “The role that the term “free will” plays in our societies is primarily only relevant to the extent that it describes the first person experience of making uncoerced choices.”
So putting these ideas together, it seems you are saying that the underlying reality is determinism and no LFW, but our experience is that we actually have LFW – and that is is most helpful not to think too much about the underlying deterministic reality, for (to quote from your baseball analogy) “it is actually an unhelpful distraction that detracts from our ability to operate” and mostly “the underlying neuroscientific facts are irrelevant to the context”.
Is that a fair statement of the logical conclusion of your view on this?
I remember when, as a child (maybe around age 12), I was riding a bicycle. And I tried riding by the book. I was familiar with the textbook descriptions of how it was supposed to work.
That was fine for going straight. But when I wanted to turn (at an intersection), I couldn’t do it. The textbook accounts were rather vague about how that works, and I could not get it working. So my solution was to ignore the books and just ride naturally. And then I had no difficulty turning corners. I later discovered how it really works. The books were wrong. More recent books probably have a better account.
So maybe the books are also wrong about determinism and free will. Experience suggests that we do have some sort of free will, though I think compatibilism is a better account than LFW.
We have two different ways of describing things. We can give a completely mechanistic description. And descriptions from physics are like that. Or we can give a teleological description, where human purposes and goals are part of the description. Our ordinary language is mostly teleological rather than mechanical.
Discussion of determinism is done in a mechanistic language, rather than a teleological language. And discussion of free will is done in teleological language rather than mechanistic language. So maybe the mistake is to use the wrong language.
Yes, I can agree that a mechanistic description of reality does not allow for humans to have free will. But it doesn’t allow there to be human or biological organisms at all. Biological things don’t really fit into mechanistic accounts. And since we are biological things, maybe we shouldn’t be too bothered that mechanistic language cannot fully describe us.
So do as I did with that bicycle. Stop trying to go by to book, and just live your live naturally, free will and all.
Let me modify your summary to tweak a few things:
So putting these ideas together, it seems you are saying that the underlying reality is effectively determinism and no LFW,
butand our experience is that we actually have LFWfreely make choices – and that is is most helpful not to think too much abouttry and account for the underlying deterministicreality in the majority of situations, for (to quote from your baseball analogy) “it is actually an unhelpful distraction that detracts from our ability to operate” and mostly “the underlying neuroscientific facts are irrelevant to the context”.
To explain these changes: you seem to have again suggested that the experience of free will is only compatible with LFW. I think we’ve gone over that enough. I also want to avoid the suggestion that investigating and thinking about the underlying explanation for the experience is not worthwhile. Free-willology has its place, but that place is relatively narrow compared to the wider context within with the term “free will” is relevant. It would be quite hypocritical of me to suggest that we should just always ignore the underlying explanations.
One potentially helpful thought that occurred to me is that you seem to hold a very rigid correspondence between the experience of free will and the larger conception of LFW, largely because the deterministic processes are absent from the experience. But we could argue that a roughly equivalent consideration applies to LFW explanations. In particular, your LFW is of the dualist variety, so shouldn’t the fact that you don’t experience the details of the mind-body interactions that clearly influence and complete your choices be a problem similar to the problem you propose for deterministic accounts? In the context where that aspect doesn’t matter, the purely experiential definition of free will does everything it needs to do without sorting those details out. The pragmatism applies beyond the deterministic accounts.
“you seem to have again suggested that the experience of free will is only compatible with LFW”
I think it would be good to define our terms. I believe free will or free choice involves something like these things:
we have options of different possible actions,
we have the ability to take an action
we (our brains or minds) make the choice,
we have some goal in mind,
we are not externally coerced,
it feels like we have a free choice,
* we are able to choose differently and not take the action,
* our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry (i.e. we are an unmoved mover)
And I believe compatibilism can allow for all of these except the two marked with an asterisk, which define “free”. Thus I believe compatibilism allows choice but the choice isn’t free.
Compatibilism is event causation. Each event is caused by preceding events. But while LFW includes event causation, it also has agent causation, where an agent initiates something independently of the event causation. Hence the idea of the unmoved mover.
Do you agree with those descriptions of LFW and compatibilistic choice?
“But we could argue that a roughly equivalent consideration applies to LFW explanations. In particular, your LFW is of the dualist variety, so shouldn’t the fact that you don’t experience the details of the mind-body interactions that clearly influence and complete your choices be a problem similar to the problem you propose for deterministic accounts?”
Well I think it does. People feel they make a choice that is free and could have been otherwise. And people commonly feel there is a self inside us that makes that choice. I think in common experience and thought, something like dualism is bound up with ideas of free will – hence why people often hold to ideas like the soul.
“it is most helpful not to try and account for the underlying reality in the majority of situations, for “it is actually an unhelpful distraction that detracts from our ability to operate” and mostly “the underlying neuroscientific facts are irrelevant to the context”.”
So I want to get what I think is the guts of this matter, which is this statement here. Let me offer a parallel example. Suppose a theist is asked for evidence for God, and they offer their personal faith experience. And suppose a sceptic asks for more objective evidence and suggests the evidence is that atheism is true. And suppose the theist replied:
“it is most helpful not to try and account for the underlying reality in the majority of situations, for it is actually an unhelpful distraction that detracts from my ability to operate as a christian, and mostly the underlying facts are irrelevant to the context.”
I wonder how you’d react. If it was me, I would first of all take a while to understand what is being said, and then I would suspect that the person was avoiding the cognitive dissonance that arises when thinking about evidence vs faith. And I would think that without evidence, the faith and experience are of little value.
I wonder if you would think similarly?
So for me, compatibilism seems to blur the definition of free will, and claim choice is free when my list of attributes of LFW suggest that compatibilistic choice isn’t free, just choice. And then your explanation of compatibilism seems to depend on not questioning things too much, just accept the experience of free will even though the choice compatibilists propose isn’t “free” according to my criteria.
I can’t see how we can escape those conclusions.
That’s all very well, but I wonder, as I have just said to Travis, if you would be happy if a christian took the same approach, and argued we shouldn’t “take things by the book” (by which we mean evidence and science) and just trust in faith and apparent experience of God?
So when you suggest “just live your live naturally, free will and all” it seems to me that you are choosing to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit with your existing views. I think the evidence, followed carefully, points to the unreality of naturalism, and thus offers some evidence for the possibility of God existing.
So since I don’t want to miss out on the truth about God, I cannot follow that advice.
I keep hearing about all of the evidence for determinism and against free will. But nobody ever provides any evidence. Typically, they point to theories. But theories are not evidence. The closest to actual evidence that I have seen, is Libet’s experiments. But it is widely recognized that those are not actually a refutation of the idea of free will.
I’ll readily grant that a computer controlled robot does not have free will. But we are not computer controlled robots. From my perspective, our experience is itself empirical evidence of some sort of free will, though perhaps not as unrestricted as the LFW people want.
I wonder whether there’s a miscommunication somewhere. When I suggested that we should just live naturally, that was a reference to human nature, rather than to nature at large (whatever that means). I have no philosophical commitment to naturalism.
But that’s the whole point of the discussion. This is a disagreement about the best way to define free will. I am not trying to argue that your definition of free will is compatible with determinism. I am arguing that your definition of free will is not the best way to define it, and that the best definition – at the level of experience – is compatible with determinism (and dualism, and just about any other ism).
I think you completely missed the point of my question. To state it again: you say that the absence of the subjective experience of the low-level details of the neural processes that generate the experience of free will is evidence against a deterministic account. Why is the absence of a subjective experience of the low-level details for the mind-body interaction not evidence against the dualistic account?
I suspect that this is how many Christians actually live, and those that are consciously doing this call themselves pragmatic Christians, Christian mystics, or Christian fictionalists. And I respect what those people are doing because they’re being honest with themselves. They are not pretending certain beliefs are true, instead they are focused on the results. They adopt the practice because it achieves the outcomes they desire. So the underlying reality truly is irrelevant to them, and if you press them on it they’ll genuinely tell you what they think is probably true about the underlying reality and then explain how that has no bearing on the results they get from their practice. And perhaps most analogous to our discussion, they aren’t telling others that the results depend on particular detailed beliefs about the underlying reality.
See my changes. I am simply disagreeing that your definition is the best definition.
Travis, I have added an extra sentence, in red, to my last comment, give a little better definition to one point. I didn’t realise that you had already commented, but I think it is best to add the extra rather than make it a separate comment.
“I wonder whether there’s a miscommunication somewhere.”
Neil, I think there is, and I’m sorry. But a discussion requires each person to understand the other person’s viewpoint clearly enough to respond to it. And as I said previously, I am struggling to understand your viewpoint on this matter.
It seems, from comments like “our experience is itself empirical evidence of some sort of free will, though perhaps not as unrestricted as the LFW people want” and “I have no philosophical commitment to naturalism” give me a taste of what you think, but when I try to investigate and clarify further, you say things like “theories are not evidence” and “just live your live naturally, free will and all” which seem to me to blur the issues.
I am not being critical, you are of course entitled to think what you think. But it does mean that my questions about free will and determinism are not answered. And that makes it hard to respond. Thanks.
“I am arguing that your definition of free will is not the best way to define it, and that the best definition – at the level of experience – is compatible with determinism “
I understand that is what you think. I agree that it is easiest for us to do that, but it raises questions.
1. When I list the attributes which are common to LFW and compatibilism, and the two that apply to LFW but not compatibilism, do you think those lists are wrong, or just unhelpful?
2. Can you give me a list of attributes that you get from defining choice at the level of experience?
3. When you say “the best definition – at the level of experience – is compatible with determinism (and dualism, and just about any other ism)”, doesn’t that mean it is a poor way to define because it doesn’t allow us to differentiate the different views? Or is that the virtue of this approach?
4. Wouldn’t it be better to say that for everyday life, it is easiest and best to define will by experience, but if we want to discuss its nature (as we are doing here) we need to go deeper, as my list of attributes does?
“Why is the absence of a subjective experience of the low-level details for the mind-body interaction not evidence against the dualistic account?”
No, I got the point. I am saying that something like an unreflective dualism is most people’s subjective experience, and they only lose that view if they become philosophers or neuroscientists. As evidence, I offer (1) the common feeling that there is “someone” inside our brains, (2) the fact that Justin Barrett says belief in souls is very fundamental to the human psyche, and (3) Wilder Penfield’s experiments where patients were able to distinguish between mental events they had willed themselves, and those produced by stimulation.
“I suspect that this is how many Christians actually live ….. And perhaps most analogous to our discussion, they aren’t telling others that the results depend on particular detailed beliefs about the underlying reality.”
I find your response here and above interesting. As I understand it, you are arguing that we are best to define will at the level of experience, and you are not in agreement with me arguing we should also use neuroscience (what you call the underlying level). Yet that doesn’t seem to be the way you operate at other times. For example, your blog describes itself as “Investigating the collision of faith, science and reason”, and in your last post, you say “Conclusion: it is only rational to assign credence to ontological claims in proportion to the extent to which it can be described by natural sciences.”
I don’t wish to be rude, but you have always seemed to me to be one of the most rational and evidence-based people I have met, and yet it seems that on the matter of free will you are choosing to avoid the difficult implications of the science, and opting for experience. I believe it is valid to do that, but it is also important to recognise that the conclusions from experience are opposed to the conclusions from naturalistic science, and face the implications of that fact.
In true Wittgensteinian fashion, I’m going to say that the difference between wrong and unhelpful is not clear when we’re talking about semantics. The value of definitions is in proportion to consequences of holding to a particular definition. In philosophical discussions, definitions serve the purpose of allowing us to synchronize and minimize talking past each other. But in the wider context they can also impact our behavior. So, in a sense, I am saying that it is wrong to define free will in terms of low-level processes because it is unhelpful in most of the contexts where the concept applies.
I’m OK with your list if you just chop off the last one. The second to last one is fine so long as ‘we’ and ‘choose’ are defined appropriately.
It just means it isn’t a fully reductionistic definition, as is the case with most of our socially relevant concepts. Money can be paper, coin, digital, etc… But it’s all still money.
That’s one approach, though the “nature” of free will has an essentialist feel to it. How about a biology analogy? Once we started to understand the low-level details of living things, we didn’t call that “the nature of biology”. We called it organic chemistry and told the biologists to keep doing what they’re doing without regard for whether or not there was an elan vital. We’re still in the process of trying to figure out the low-level details behind the experience of free will.
But you didn’t answer the question. We don’t experience the low-level details of mind-body interaction. Why don’t you consider that evidence against dualism in the same way that you consider the absence of the experience of the low-level details of neurological processes to be evidence against determinism?
I’m not avoiding anything. I’ve given you my perspective on the low-level details. I’m only saying that the low-level description is not the best definition to go along with the larger context in which the term ‘free will’ resides.
With regard to “it is only rational to assign credence to ontological claims in proportion to the extent to which it can be described by natural sciences”, I wasn’t advocating a purely reductionist ontology. If you go back to the breakdown of my ontological views, I’m a conceptualist. Free will is a mind-dependent entity (in more ways than one). The argument that empirical claims should enjoy more credence than non-empirical claims is only really relevant to ontological claims about mind-independent entities. And my pragmatic leanings will inform my ontological preferences for how we distinguish between mind-dependent and mind-independent, which means it will depend on the context.
Sorry to delay replying, but I was busy and I needed to try to get my head around what you wrote. I’m still not sure I’m there, for I really think I don’t understand how you can think what you do, or else I don’t understand what you think at all.
It seems to me that all the smaller points and disagreements, and your baseball and biology analogies, all flow from one key disagreement, or perhaps misunderstanding ….
”I am saying that it is wrong to define free will in terms of low-level processes because it is unhelpful in most of the contexts where the concept applies.”
My starting point is to try a few analogies of my own about experiences and lower level processes.
1. NDEs happen at the level of experience, and there is significant research in simply recording and classifying these experiences. But psychologists and neuroscientists also investigate what is actually happening at the brain level – because it is important to know whether something actually happens as claimed, or it is all in the mind as scientists think.
2. Medical conditions, e.g. ebola, happen at the level of experience (people have certain symptoms and their health suffers accordingly), but microbiologists etc look to the deeper underlying causes because knowing that cause will help them fight the disease or virus.
3. Anthropologists working in so-called primitive cultures report the phenomenon of demon possession, where certain behaviours and effects are manifested at the level of experience. But they also want to understand the causes – are they actually evil spirits, or is it all psychological, or even pharmacological? – because it is important culturally, medically and theologically to know the truth behind the experience.
4. It seems to be getting warmer, there seems to be more fierce storms, cattle are dying in longer droughts, that is our experience. But it is important to investigate the underlying causes so we can address them before it is too late.
So it seems clear to me that there is a place for observing experience, in ourselves or others, because that tells us something very important about human behaviour and human culture. But there is also a place to investigate scientifically what is the physical or biochemical reality behind those experiences.
So you say your preference not to define free will on low level processes is “helpful”, but helpful for what? I would say it is helpful for us to live lives without being bothered by questions about free will, moral responsibility, and human consciousness – after all we can’t be thinking about such things all the time, or our lives will likely become pessimistic or less ethical or something else.
But that approach isn’t helpful for understanding the truth about free will, any more than denial helps us understand climate change.
Just as, using your analogy, we need to study both biology and biochemistry, so we need to study all the matters I have raised, and free will too, at both levels.
It looks from the outside like you have chosen to define at one level only because the consequences of defining at both levels are dire (= unhelpful).
”We don’t experience the low-level details of mind-body interaction. Why don’t you consider that evidence against dualism in the same way that you consider the absence of the experience of the low-level details of neurological processes to be evidence against determinism?”
I do consider the evidence against dualism. I keep saying I know there is more to this question than we are currently discussing. So, I believe people experience free will in a libertarian form, not the form that you describe – i.e. we are able to choose differently and not take the action (using those words in the normal sense and not redefining them), and our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry (i.e. we are an unmoved mover). So universal human experience is evidence for LFW. But there is the other side, the science, which seems to point to determinism (though I think that is largely based on the naturalistic assumptions of science). I think both sides, both levels, need to be considered.
So to conclude, I feel you are arbitrarily choosing to devalue half the evidence, and (ironically) when you choose to define free will on experience, you ignore that human experience is essentially LFW.
Now, do you think we are on such different wavelengths that we are both missing each other’s points? I have learned a lot from this discussion, but do you think we have any more light to shed for each other?
I have no objections to this.
Helpful in the sense that the majority of contexts which use the term “free will” are only concerned with the experience. Incorporating the low-level description into a singular definition that spans all contexts introduces complexity and disagreement into the contexts where those low-level processes aren’t relevant.
All definitions are contextually constrained. We don’t have the cognitive equipment to simultaneously conceptualize everything at all possible levels of description. Somebody could conceivably appeal to quantum mechanics and say that all of our definitions and categories are just shortcuts for describing the actual truth captured by the different states of the universal wavefunction. Fine. What does that accomplish? This doesn’t change the fact that our use of contextually constrained definitions is what works best for us. “Free will” is really just one example in a larger argument for the pragmatic use of language.
I’m OK with that. It’s the same reason I don’t define baseball in terms of the laws of physics. You can’t divorce definitions from context. They are inescapably entangled. The context is what informs the level of description that is appropriate \ helpful \ useful.
I can see that I also need to clarify that I am not advocating ignorance. A preference for defining one particular term at a particular level of description does not entail ignoring all other levels of description for a phenomenon, nor does it entail dismissing any relations between the different levels of descriptions. It is instead saying that we should allow ourselves to communicate and operate at the different levels of description without having to simultaneously also account for the other levels of description.
Hi Travis, I feel like I’ve found the key, in the following statements.
1. In most things there are two (or more) levels of description, our experience and the underlying physical reality.
2. We can’t easily consider all levels at once, so we use the level of description that most suits what we are thinking about at the time.
3. If we have understood reality properly, the different levels of description should all be consistent, though different.
Would you agree?
So let’s look at our freewill issue and your comments ….
“All definitions are contextually constrained. We don’t have the cognitive equipment to simultaneously conceptualize everything at all possible levels of description.”
No, but we should use the level of description that most suits what we are thinking about at the time.
For example, we live on a sphere (more or less) but it doesn’t feel that way, so we ignore the spherical reality most of the time. And if I’m a surveyor, I assume a straight line of sight is parallel to the earth’s surface even though it’s not exactly. But if we are launching a satellite, we need to consider the spherical shape.
“I don’t define baseball in terms of the laws of physics. “
So mostly you don’t do that – e.g. while watching the game or discussing with a friend – but sometimes you should, if you are discussing why the ball follows a particular course. Again, the level of description should be appropriate for the matter under consideration.
But further, the two levels of description must be consistent if we have a correct view of the reality. And with baseball, they are consistent. What we observe when we watch the flight of the ball matches what the physics tells us.
“It is instead saying that we should allow ourselves to communicate and operate at the different levels of description without having to simultaneously also account for the other levels of description.”
In this sentence, “simultaneously” is a misleading word. Of course we can’t easily hold differing levels of description in our minds at the same time. But that isn’t the question. The question is what is the appropriate level on any particular occasion.
So applying this to free will …..
Our common human experience is that we have free will most of the time. We can’t easily live life without that assumption and we can’t easily rid our minds of that assumption. But there are times when other levels of description are more appropriate – e.g. when discussing the underlying physical reality.
So we feel we experience free will, but, unlike the baseball example, or my spherical world example, the naturalistic science description doesn’t fit that experience. So that means we haven’t described things correctly, and we have an issue to resolve, an issue which you don’t seem to recognise or maybe don’t know how to resolve, namely What is the truth of the matter?
The incompatibilists resolve the dilemma by saying our experience of free will is illusory.
The dualists resolve the issue by saying that the naturalistic science is incomplete.
The compatibilists try to resolve the matter by saying both descriptions are true even though they are inconsistent, and then either redefine free will to what most people DON’T mean by it, or else get into verbal contortions to try to justify an inconsistent position.
It seems to me you have taken a slightly different course, but the inconsistency remains, warning us, I believe, that it is an incorrect explanation.
Yes, I think there is some progress here. I’m OK with most of what you said up until the end, so let’s jump in there.
As I have noted several times in this discussion, I disagree that the scientific description doesn’t fit the experience. That description does not specify conscious access to the full causal chain. As far as I’m aware, the prevailing description is that of a post-hoc interpreter, in which we make our choices at a subconscious level and then explain the choice at the conscious level (allowing that there is also possibly a feedback loop there – what we call deliberation).
That’s how I see it.
“I disagree that the scientific description doesn’t fit the experience.”
“both descriptions are true and define free will to what most people mean by it.”
So this is the key to our disagreement. I think it comes down to these questions (do you agree?):
1. Is there a difference between LFW and compatibilistic free will (CFW)?
2. Do most people believe they experience what is effectively LFW and not CFW, or is CFW what most people experience?
3. Is the scientific description (which is that choice is determined) consistent with LFW, or CFW, or both?
My understanding from our discussion is as follows:
1. I say there is a difference – LFW satisfies the last two of my criteria ((i) we are able to choose differently and not take the action, and (ii) our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry, i.e. we can be an unmoved mover) but CFW does not. I think you agreed CFW doesn’t satisfy (ii), but could satisfy (i) if “we” and “choose” were defined “appropriately” – is that so?
If that’s the case, let’s focus on (ii) because that is clear and sufficient to test things.
2. So to answer this question, we need to establish if what most people experience conforms to “our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry, i.e. we can be an unmoved mover”. I say that most people experience that, i.e. LFW and not CFW or determinism. I think you say determinism is real at the lower level, but people’s experience is satisfied by CFW and doesn’t require that extra criterion which satisfies LFW – is that correct?
3. I say it isn’t consistent with LFW, though may be with CFW, and I think you agree, is that so?
So my conclusion is that our discussion hinges on whether people’s experience is of LFW or of CFW. Do you agree?
Yes. LFW and CFW are both terms that aim to combine levels of description. The first word is a qualifier that tells you what lies beneath the experience of free will. So there is a difference with regard to the low level description, but not with regard to the experience itself.
I’m not sure I understand your follow-up question. To answer #2, most people experience just plain old “free will” and don’t account for the qualifiers that go beyond the experience.
Yes. This is pretty much the definition of CFW – the low level scientific description is compatible with the experiential description.
“I’m not sure I understand your follow-up question. To answer #2, most people experience just plain old “free will” and don’t account for the qualifiers that go beyond the experience.”
The question is “what is plain old free will”? Do we mean the same thing by that term?
I think compatibilism relies on blurred definitions, so I am simply wanting to define the free will that you think people experience, so we can see whether your statement above is true, or not.
I suggested a while back that the free will you are talking about has 6 characteristics, and the free will I am talking about has two others in addition, and you agreed with me that your definition of free will doesn’t include the last one, which was: “our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry (i.e. we are, or can be, an unmoved mover)”
So if people’s experience includes this, then they are not experiencing what you say is free will, but if they don’t then your definition may be correct.
Does that make sense, and do you agree?
This criteria is more than our experience can support. You already had a 6th criteria of “it feels like we have a free choice”, which is about as far as our experience can take us.
I don’t think you can support this. You have said the criteria is people’s experience, so how can you constrain that? By your experience? That surely begs the question. By the scientific reality? But you have said the definition should be based on experience, NOT the scientific reality.
So having chosen to base your definition on experience, surely you have to accept whatever we can discover about people’s experience? And that is what I propose to discuss next.
OK. Go ahead. Show me how my experience is abnormal and everybody else can actually distinguish between “our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry” and “it feels like we have a free choice”.
Well I don’t think your criteria is “everybody else can actually distinguish”, because “actually” would imply reality, and that would require examining the lower level, which your definition doesn’t require. Rather, you have simply specified what people experience and that is what I am going with.
So, what do people experience? Do they think their actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry, and that they are, or can be, an unmoved mover?
I think there is a lot of evidence on this question so I’ll need a little while to get it together (I’m thinking I’ll make a full post about it). Thanks.
I was appealing to subjective experience. As I understand it, you are making the claim that the information in our subjective experience is sufficient for us to distinguish between “it feels like we have a free choice” and “our actions are not fully determined or constrained by physics & chemistry”. I don’t think that these are distinguishable based purely on subjective experience. I think that the 2nd proposition is an overextrapolation from the experience and that there are deterministic explanations which are compatible with the experience. I’m happy to wait for you to compile the evidence for a new post if that makes the most sense.
Hi Travis, sorry to take so long, but I have been crazy busy. I have been out for several night sin a row, and we have also had an important election that I got involved in (and which turned out badly).
Anyway, my post is now done.
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