We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

“But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.”

John Horgan, giving Sam Harris a bit of a kicking.

Read the whole piece. Food for thought.

 

102 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Herbie

    That last sentence is nonsense. Truth and knowledge aren’t analogous. Something is true whether we know it or not.

  • Herbie

    And it dawns on me that may have been the point…

  • Elrond Hubbard

    Irrelevant religious bullshit.
    ‘Free will’ doesn’t mean anything, and Sam Harris is not a philosopher.

  • Irrelevant religious bullshit.

    Tosh. Religion has nothing to do with this.

    ‘Free will’ doesn’t mean anything

    But it does. The opposite of ‘free will’ is that we are just pre-programmed meat automata. You don’t have to agree one way or the other but to deny the term has meaning is preposterous.

    and Sam Harris is not a philosopher.

    Not sure why that matters but does one need a licence to be a philosopher?

  • Richard Thomas

    Ah, but if there is no free will, we are pre-programmed to think and act as if there were. In a very real way, it literally doesn’t mean anything except as an academic exercise.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Harris’s memes, in contrast, are infecting the minds not of right wing and religious cranks but of smart, knowledgeable people

    I see what he did there, very clever.

    I believe I’ve commented before on the unfortunate tendency of intellectuals to insert in-group focussed self-congratulation into their ostensibly logical arguments.

    I loose the point they were trying to make when I see this. The smug gets in the way.

  • Intellectually, I tend not to think that free will exists. But this is not helpful, so one must behave as if it does. So ultimately, the question of free will is no more than an intellectual exercise.

    Choice, on the other hand, is something different. One always has a choice. Just because you are in a position in which none of your possible choices are particularly nice, does not mean that choice is not real. You have a crap job that you do because it feeds your family. You do have the option of leaving that job. It may mean that your family will leave you, or possibly that they will starve if you leave that job. it may not be a particularly palatable choice, and it may not be moral to take it, *but you do have that choice*. Or perhaps you live under an authoritarian dictatorship. If you speak out against that dictatorship, you may end up dead as a consequence. You still have the choice as to whether to do so or not. I am not venturing an opinion as to what is the correct choice in this situation, but you do have the choice. And that you have the choice still matters.

  • Michael: what does choice matter, if your will to choose is not free? It makes the existence of “choice” rather moot, no?

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Alisa: Quite. But that’s no way to live.

  • Midwesterner (Wisconsin, USA)

    I hold the same opinion on free will as Michael. My observation is that people who believe in predeterminism and act on that belief are definitely, er, not well adapted to survive much less prosper. Whether my choices are predetermined by the laws of physics or not, I perceive free will and act accordingly.

    The passivity that often accompanies belief in determinism, is itself a choice. Whether the choice one makes is predetermined is a philosophical question, not a practical one. Predetermined or not, one still chooses.

  • Paul Marks

    A good post.

    And a good comment from Perry.

    As for “one must behave as if it does” – talking of agency (free will).

    If there is no agent there is no “one” (no agency = no agent).

    If there is no agency (no free will) there is no “I”.

    And as for “one must behave as if it does”.

    The whole point of determinism is that real choice does not exist (because there is no agent – no agency) so one does not have a choice over how “one behaves” as “one” (the “I” – the chooser) does not exist.

    It is a denial of the subject-object distinction.

    A denial of the difference between a clock and a human being. A denial that there are such things as “beings” (agents – examples of free will).

    So saying “there is no such thing as free will – but one should act as if there is” is wrong on a whole series of levels.

    It is as absurd as compatiblism.

    Which is down there with “dry water” and “square circle”.

  • Paul Marks

    “But that is no way to live”.

    The basic point of determinism is that people do not get a choice about how they live. Because people (properly speaking – i.e. human BEINGS) do not exist.

  • Elrond Hubbard

    Religionn has nothing to do with this.

    It has everything to do with it. Libertarian ideas of the will come from theological mumbo-jumbo. Though similar pseudo-debates exist in non-Christian contexts, it all equals up to a magical notion to bolster the self-importance of a rather lackluster species.

    “But it does. The opposite of ‘free will’ is that we are just pre-programmed meat automata. You don’t have to agree one way or the other but to deny the term has meaning is preposterous.”

    There is no ‘opposite’ of free will. Determinism or randomness are the only positions that make sense. Whether you think intentional behavior exists is actually irrelevant to this. ‘Free will’ is a non-position, just like God, used to obfuscate and emotionalize over. It has no cognitive content. What’s more ‘free will’ advocates attack a straw man caricature that no one actually believes, and even if their stupid ‘criticisms’ were relevant their alternative is a non-alternative. ‘Free will’ is like a ‘socialist economy’ – using words incorrectly.

    Not sure why that matters but does one need a licence to be a philosopher?

    He’s a pop wordsmith, just like Dan Dennett. That’s why he’s dealing with idiot non-questions like ‘free will’. ‘The meaning of life’ should be next. ‘Philosophy’ in the public sphere is equal parts verbosity and emptiness because it exists for ideological rationalization and entertaining slack-jawed nobodies who have no right to an opinion due to their sheer ignorance.

    Intellectually, I tend not to think that free will exists. But this is not helpful, so one must behave as if it does.

    Nonsense. I behave as though I had intentional plans, and as though other people did. Nothing about an action being intentional implies it is not determined. Free will is just fucking bullshit.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Gee, Elrond, were you compelled to oppose free will, or did you choose to do it?
    If you really believed that free will does not exist, then you would not respond to any of these articles, since we did not ‘choose’ to make them.

  • Elrond Hubbard

    Deleted by the management. Fuck off. Not a request.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Elrond, given your frankly obnoxious language I find it easy to believe that you are unfamiliar with the concept that human beings are capable of controlling their own behaviour.

    The rest of us grown-ups learned not to call people names a long time ago.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    JV, I have found that people become irritable when they are losing the argument. Or maybe he hasn’t had enough sleep?
    Elrond’s idea of free will sounds like the behaviour of allah- he cannot be chained to anything, not even promises he made earlier! No wonder muslim ‘theology’ cannot be vigorous.

  • brokky

    molecular biology shows that biological processes, including those of the brain, are as governed and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry as much as the ‘inorganic’ world…free will is really a (necessary) illusion of consciousness. Though like MJ I prefer to live as if free will did exist (and yes I am aware of the paradox of that statement)

  • Paul Marks

    “Determinism and randomness are the only two possiblities…..”

    Dealt with by Ralph Cudworth – three and half centuries ago.

    There is also CHOICE.

    AGENCY.

    When one blows up a dam with gunpowder the water is “free” in the sense that it can burst out – but that is not choice (not agency) as the water comes out without CHOOSING to do so.

    And the “random swerves of that atom” are not an example of agency either.

    NEITHER determinism or randomness (as in QM of subatomic particles) are anything to do with agency – with CHOICE.

    The “it must be predetermined or it must be random” is an absurdly limited view of humans.

    It would mean that humans are not “beings” at all.

  • Paul Marks

    brokky – ye Gods what a mess.

    If free will (agency) does not exist – there is no one to have any “illusions”, there is no “consciousness” (because there is no “I”).

    “I prefer to live as if free will did exist”.

    If you understand the “paradox” (really the ABSURDITY) of that statement, then do not make it in future.

    If there is no agency there is no agent (no “I”) – you can not choose to live “as if”……, because (according to determinism) you can not choose.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Gosh, Elrond was a polite elf in all those ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies and books. This guy should be called Saurannon, Foulmouth. He is certainly not winning me over to his side.

  • Midwesterner (Wisconsin, USA)

    The problem with free will is it requires either a supernatural influence (soul, etc) or a belief that the laws of physics allow random outcomes. “Random” and “not-random” together are all inclusive. “Not-random” is by definition, determinist.

    “Random” is not “chaotic”. “Chaos” is determinist, just too complicated to be predicted. Climate systems are an example of a chaotic-determinist system. Many physicists believe they have found a level of resolution that contains truly random behaviors, but being unable to detect a pattern does not prove that there isn’t one. Laws-of-physics based arguments for free will theories are not falsifiable. Random behavior (non-determinist) cannot be distinguished from chaotic behavior (determinist) by testing against predictions, so only not-random&not-chaotic (one form of determinist) is capable of falsification. Chaotic versus random can only be debated in retrospect. Behavior that is apparently random is indistinguishable from unrecognized chaotic behavior. As arguments for free will depend on falsifying determinism, not falsifying predictability, there are no scientifically valid tests or arguments for free will, only subjective opinions.

    A metaphysical argument for free will carries its own problems with falsifiability but has the lesser constraint of not requiring compliance with the laws of physics or scientific method.

    Belief in free will, while understandable and even (as I hold) useful, is subjective and lacks scientifically valid support.

    Choice may be a chaotically determinist process and the perception of free will an illusion caused by an incalculably complex decision process. Totally refraining from action is death, so actions must be taken to live and they will be perceived as ‘choices’ by the actor and observers. Whether those choices are the result of random or of chaotic-determinist processes does not alter the impact they have on subsequent events. Agency and free will are not synonymous. Agency can be compelled by the laws of physics, chemical catalysts being a very simple case but not philosophically distinct from brain chemistry as a catalyst of agency.

    Believing in the possibility of determinism while choosing to act as though one is exercising free will is not at all absurd. In a chaotic system, determinism can only look backward for explanations, it cannot predict the future. Looking forward, acting, agency, in a chaotic system requires one to choose, whether one likes it or not even though it is a determinist system. The passivity that a misguided determinist may choose is still a choice. Whether the negative consequences they face are the result of a chaotic brain chemistry or chaotic weather thermodynamics could be an entirely subjective distinction.

  • Slartibartfarst

    Hmm. I wonder. Is it, “sounds like L. Ron Hubbard”?
    I forget the little I gleaned of Scientology from the people trying to “clear” you in their Tottenham Court Rd . office/shop, years ago.

    I am curious to know under what circumstances what Elrond Hubbard said might make sense.
    To summarise his main points: (taken some liberties here)

    1. Free will is a fictional concept – an absurdity: (like the Emperor’s New clothes)
    Libertarian ideas of the will arguably come from theological beliefs, and though similar pseudo-debates exist in non-Christian contexts, it still only equates to a religious/theoretical notion that may exist simply to fill a void – e.g., (say) to bolster the self-importance of a rather lacklustre species [suffering from an inferiority complex?].

    2. There is therefore no – can not be an – “opposite” of the absurdity/fiction/concept of free will. Determinism or randomness are the only positions that can logically exist. Whether you think intentional behaviour exists is actually irrelevant to this. The concept “Free will” is thus a non-position, just like God, and at best is only useful to obfuscate and/or emotionalize over. It has no cognitive content. Thus, “free will” advocates effectively put themselves in the position where they attack a straw man caricature that no one actually believes, and even if their irrational “criticisms” were relevant, their alternative is a in fact a non-alternative. “Free will” is thus like a the concept of a “socialist economy” – an incorrect use of words.

    You might behave as though you have intentional plans, and as though other people did, but nothing about an action being intentional implies that it is not determined. Free will is an absurdity.

    3. Fire: If you do not agree with this, you can burn in Hell with the rest of the goddamn monkeys for all I care.
    _____________________________________________

    Can anyone suggest under what circumstances or under what religio-political ideology this might make sense? (Item 3 excepted.) Does this sound like Scientology?
    Why did he seem so angry/rude? What did he say that was censored above? Maybe it might throw some light on things.

    On to more important matters.
    Now, where did I think I put my bananas? Ooh look, there they are, next to that box of matches in my car…
    ___________________________
    @Nick (nice-guy) Gray:

    Gee, Elrond, were you compelled to oppose free will, or did you choose to do it?”

    Very droll.

  • Dishman

    brokky wrote:
    molecular biology shows that biological processes, including those of the brain, are as governed and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry as much as the ‘inorganic’ world…

    At a deeper level yet is Quantum Mechanics. As best we can tell, at this level there is no basis for ‘Determinism’. It is all probabilistic.

    At the very lowest levels, the future isn’t set. We can only predict roughly based on inertia and very large numbers. Chaos still scales, though, so the uncertainty can never be eliminated, even with the best of prediction techniques.

  • Dishman

    Midwesterner wrote:
    “Random” is not “chaotic”. “Chaos” is determinist, just too complicated to be predicted. Climate systems are an example of a chaotic-determinist system.

    Clay Mathematics Institute is currently offering a $1M prize for the proof or disproof of this statement.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    At the very lowest levels, the future isn’t set. We can only predict roughly based on inertia and very large numbers. Chaos still scales, though, so the uncertainty can never be eliminated, even with the best of prediction techniques.

    That’s still a different thing from saying that we can have any control over what will happen, though. “The future is not predetermined” is a necessary condition to the existence of free will, but it is not sufficient.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I tend to think about this subject in the following way: the world is governed by certain physical laws – not all of which we understand. Human beings, including our minds, are part of nature. Every thing that exists has a certain specific nature. One of the facts – observable by introspection and empirical evidence – is that human consciousness is not automatic. When we concentrate on something, there is an act of effort involved. We can also reason about how we reason; we can think about the very values, codes and principles that we want to live by. In that way, we can, over time, develop a sense of self, of an “I”. If we deny the reality of human volition, then we surely reduce any sense of “me” to nothingness, an illusion.

    One of the paradoxes of hard determinism, so it seems to me, is that if everything, including our very thoughts, are pre-determined by antecedent factors, and there is no autonomous “I” involved, then how can one prove the objective truth of anything in this world, including determinism? It means we are condemned to mouthing incomprehensible noises at one another.

    But introspection surely gives us the real factual sense that we do choose some of our actions; that we are, to some extent, authors of our own life stories. There is no need for “ghosts in machines” or gods or other flim-flam. The sense that we have some sort of control over our lives is not just an illusion.

    Another thing that the hard determinists tend to overlook is the fallacy of what I call reductionism. By seeking to explain the mind in terms of the firings of electrical circuits or physical parts, it does not explain so much as explain away.

    I recommend writers such as Raymond Tallis and John Searle on this issue. And Diana Hsieh has an excellent discussion here about free will generally.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I came across these rather fine quotes from this site, Monorealism:

    “But does this lead to an infinite regression? Must we first decide to use reason, and if so, how? No, we don’t have to: that is founded directly in reality, in the reality of man. It is our nature to use reason . When we wake, we start thinking; we cannot function normally without using reason; the very human responses of noting an inconsistency, or being puzzled, are rooted in reason. We can decide, based on our values, that we won’t think; that we will evade reality; that we’re happy to carry dozens of contradictory beliefs with no attempt at integration: but those decisions are made by a being who has no choice but to make some decision, a being who has no choice but to think even in the act of deciding not to.”

    “A determinist can say a protozoan is controlled by biochemistry, a dog by conditioning: but what can he say about a man? “Of course what you did was determined: you came to a conclusion as to the course of action most in accord with your values, and did it. You had no choice: it was the only logical thing to do.” But this is free will. If we can decide what is objectively our best course of action, what is in accord with achieving our values and desires, and do it: then what more needs to be said? How could we be more free?”

    “Consider the chain of causation. The atomic arrangements that make up our brains are such that those brains (1) have active consciousness, which seeks to understand the world, maintain life and improve well-being; and (2) have the power of reason, allowing direct assessment of how to achieve those things. That is, by direct, deliberate reference to reality, bypassing the action of blind, unfathomable forces. Thus our actions have causes but are not determined: we act according to our nature, but our nature is to be free. That we are conscious means we are not mindless automata; that we have reason means our consciousness is not merely blown hither and yon by random forces of the world.”

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    If human beings cannot under identical circumstances chose either path A or path B, then there can be no accountability, no judgement, no responsibility and no value to anything.

    We hold that a man who butchers his family is worthy of punishment, but if he was incapable of acting any differently how could this be so? One course of action could never be described as preferable to another. The governments of Costa Rica in 2013 and Nazi Germany in 1941 would be of equal moral utility – i.e. none at all.

    Indeed, if there really were no such thing as free will, not only would there be no point whatsoever in worrying about things like liberty, it would be a complete irrelevance because your worry itself was a product of deterministic processes over which you had no control.

    It is a short hop from neurological determinism, to solipsist nihilism, to randomly knifing 20 people at your local Lidls because nothing matters any more.

    I’ll call this rationale what it is – bollocks. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of neuropsychology – a misunderstanding that is common amongst neuropsychologists themselves. Amongst them it is caused by working too closely with low level processes, so that they lose their grasp of how little they understand of how they integrate with the whole.

    There is a large information gap in our understanding of human neurophysiology. We know quite a lot about how individual neurons fire, and we know quite a lot about how human beings process visual information and then respond to that – but we know next to nothing about the processes between these two extremes.

    What I can tell you is that sometimes I behave better, and sometimes I behave worse. When I behave better, sometimes it is the result of my making a decision to behave better. When I behave worse, sometimes it is the result of a personal failure on my part to decide to act better.

    I am responsible for my own conduct.

  • ‘Free will’ can be (I think, is) the result of physical processes – just as lighting, gravity or any other non-human natural phenomenon is a result of such physical processes. Whether these processes are themselves predetermined, random, chaotic or whatever, is an entirely separate question. All this is insofar as the term ‘free will’ is confined to the context of human perception of reality – but then, is there any other term that is not so confined? In short, I seem to be in agreement with Michael and Mid.

    Moving on to lesser matters, I also happen to agree with Slartibartfarst that this Hubbard dude’s obnoxiousness does get in the way of a possible encounter with a curious-enough personality. Oh well. If the bananas are not too ripe, I say ‘share, Starti, you know you want to’. There’s not much in this random/chaotic/pre-determined mortal world worse than an overripe banana.

  • For myself, not being the worlds greatest student of philosophy, I take a more pragmatic viewpoint:

    1. There is no obvious test that I can undertake to prove conclusively whether I have free-will or not.

    2. If I were to assume that I do not have free-will then that would mean not only that ‘Shit Happens’, but that it is going to happen regardless of my actions. This would necessarily lead me to take a rather fatalistic view of the universe, which is depressing.

    3. If on the other hand, I assume that I have free-will (even if I am just conning myself), then I believe that the life I live is determined largely by my own actions, the free-will of others and random events. I much prefer this version of the universe.

    4. Given all of the above, I’m happier if I believe in free-will, therefore I believe in free-will. This is true even if it isn’t (if you see what I mean).

    Quod Erat Demonstrandum

    P.S. Elrond Hubbard you are a cunt, even worse than your Scientologist counterpart. Please fuck off.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    John Galt, I see your reasoning, but I think we can base free will (or call it volition if you like) on actual facts: our introspection that we have a choice and make choices is not an illusion – introspection is just as real in terms of perceiving things as sight, feel, smell and taste. And determinists usually don’t question the evidence of our senses as much as they seem to query introspection, which seems illogical.

    To be human is to choose; to think is to make a choice. It is a sort of irreduceable primary fact of existence. Deny it, and one might as well deny anything.

    Some people might get rather cross about such debates and shout, “Who cares?” Well, the reason it is worth getting ourselves straight on these issues is because determinism, when misapplied to certain areas of human life, can be very dangerous. Already, the likes of Sam Harris are trying to apply their “scientific” ideas to areas of morality where science – or what they think is science – does not belong. And the general thrust of determinism is that it forces people, horrified at the fatalism and nihilism it seems to suggest, to cling to “old fashioned” ideas such as free will in a sort of guilty way, like a “noble lie”. But “noble lies” tend not to hold sway for very long. It reminds me of how Pascal tried to save religion with his famous wager – it smelled dodgy at the time.

  • brokky


    Basil Fawlty, British television’s hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn’t start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. “Right! I warned you. You’ve had this coming to you!” He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don’t we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships? Isn’t the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?

    Concepts like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where human wrongdoers are concerned. When a child robs an old lady, should we blame the child himself or his parents? Or his school? Negligent social workers? In a court of law, feeble-mindedness is an accepted defence, as is insanity. Diminished responsibility is argued by the defence lawyer, who may also try to absolve his client of blame by pointing to his unhappy childhood, abuse by his father, or even unpropitious genes (not, so far as I am aware, unpropitious planetary conjunctions, though it wouldn’t surprise me).

    But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

    Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.

    – Richard Dawkins

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa – it may be so.

    Ayn Rand (for example) was a passionate atheist – but that did not mean that she believed in a non material soul.

    For Rand (as for some classical philosophers) the human mind (what J.P. rightly calls “introspection” – the “I”) exists – but dies a physical death.

    brokky.

    I see – so according to Richard Dawkins good and evil (and choice itself) are just “useful fictions”.

    Well thank you very much for your contribution my dear – please remember your hat and case on your way out.

    The idea that science “proves” the utterly absurd (as with that piece of total ignorance for Dawkins) is what turns people against “science” (the scare quotes are because they are really against the false conclusions that statists draw from science – ans use as a excuse for their own demands for power and general wickedness).

    For example, why are so many American Christians hostile to evolution? The authors of the early 1900s essays on “the fundementals” (from which the word “fundementalist” comes) were NOT hostile to evolution – indeed several of the authors were leading scientists.

    So what changed?

    The Eugenics movement hit.

    The endless demands that the “inferior” (including entire races) be exterminated. In such works as “Hunter’s Civic Biology” (the real target of the so called “Monkey Trial” in the 1920s) the demands of the Eugenics movement shocked even people who were already broadly racist in their beliefs (it went too far even for them – all this tends to be left out of the Hollywood films).

    However it is not really “science” that is to blame (that is a false conclusion that people come to because these vile people claim the mantle of “science”).

    Nor is atheism to blame – see my example of Ayn Rand (or Antony Flew, for most of his life an atheist, or very many other thinkers – including many scientists).

    No the people to blame are the people who falsely claim the mantle of “science” for their absurd statements.

    Such as that good and evil (indeed human choice itself) are just “useful fictions”.

  • Paul Marks

    When someone says they are “beyond good and evil” – that these things do not “really” exist, and that, even if they did exist, humans (flesh robots – not beings) could not “really” choose between them. They are, in fact, saying something rather basic.

    “I choose evil”.

    The correct reply to such evil people is not to waste time in a long philosphical debate, it is to ignore them as long as they do not put their choice into practice, and to PUNISH them if they do put their choice into practice (by robbery, rape, murder…..).

    “I had not choice over doing this – “I” do not really exist, I am just an electro chemical process, predetermined by a series of course-and-effect events going back to the Big Bang”.

    “That may be so Dr Dawkins – but in that case we have no choice over whether or not we are going to hang you, as we also are not beings (not “I”s), but just an electro chemical processes, predetermined by a series of cause-and-effect events going back to the Big Bang. So stop struggleing as we put the rope round your neck – there is a good chap”.

  • Paul, what you are doing is not useful.

    What Mr. Dawkins is missing – either intentionally or not – is that responsibility is not about ‘blame’ in the simplistic, infantile sense of the word. Rather, ‘responsibility’ denotes the idea that all actions, human or not, have consequences. Thus, it doesn’t matter why one murdered (as opposed to committed what is legalistically referred to as ‘manslaughter’). What matters is that if you murder, or rape, or kill – or, conversely, do something that society defines as ‘good’ – your actions have consequences. Just as rain makes you wet, and fire makes you warm, and jumping off a cliff makes you into a pancake. All the rest of what we call ‘morality’ are indeed human constructs – some of them more useful than others.

  • …sorry, wrote ‘kill’ instead of ‘steal’ – but all the same, really.

  • Oh, and what JP said. Paul, your “argument” is just another example of what JP refers to as the ‘who cares’ “argument”.

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa – a big rock hitting the Earth from outer space has “consequences”.

    But it is not someone’s fault – unless they fired it (or choose not to intercept it).

    By the way….

    A self evident truth is just that – SELF EVIDENT.

    A self evident truth has nothing to with argument.

    There is nothing “religious” about (for example) “A is A” – but it is not open to “argument” either.

    Although, YES, the revolt against Common Sense has terrible consequences. It would still be error even if it did not have terrible consequences.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way – the idea that truth should be judged by whether it is “useful” (“choose the philosophy that suits you” – “it may be true for you – but it is not true for me”)comes from the American Pragamatists – William James and co.

    These people denied the existance of objective truth.

    Agency (free will) exists – it is an objective fact (indeed the central objective fact),

    It is less likely that it is an “illusion” than that the entire physical universe is an illusion. After all our belief in the existance of the physical universe is “just” based on the evidence of our senses (we could be in error).

    Indeed the nonexistance of agency is logically impossible – for if there is no agency, there is no agent to have the “illusion” of agency.

    Humans do not have the freedom to do anything we wish to do (I can not jump to Mars). Nor is it the case that we can make choices without EFFORT to overcome genetic and environmental influences (and we may fail to do so), but to deny the very existance of agency is the ulitimate “cop out” the supreme example of “bad faith”.

  • Paul Marks

    To give an simple example.

    Unintentional killing is NOT murder.

    Murder depends on the CHOICE to kill.

  • I am not judging the truthfulness of your arguments, Paul, I am judging their usefulness. You could have just as well tried to refute Dawkins’ argument by saying ‘lemons are yellow’. Truthful? Yes. Useful? Not really.

  • There is nothing “religious” about (for example) “A is A” – but it is not open to “argument” either.

    No, but denying the possibility that someone else may see a B where you – or everyone else, for that matter – see an A is a religious-like position.

  • Midwesterner (Wisconsin, USA)

    Dishman,

    At the very lowest levels, the future isn’t set. We can only predict roughly based on inertia and very large numbers. Chaos still scales, though, so the uncertainty can never be eliminated, even with the best of prediction techniques.

    Pointing out the (hopefully) obvious, inability to predict is not the same as uncertainty of outcome. Just because ‘quantum uncertainty’ defies prediction, does not mean that it is assuredly random. The only solution is complete and perfect knowledge of input states at (if necessary, infinite) levels of resolution.

    Clay Mathematics Institute is currently offering a $1M prize for the proof or disproof of this statement.

    Science has forever been searching for the indivisible particle, aka “atom“. The mere existence of the term “sub-atomic particle” demonstrates the hubris of believing one can observe the complete scope of reality. I suspect that the finer scales of resolution yield a level of complexity (possibly infinite if there is no particle/energy pair that is truly indivisible) that will mean that it will in sufficiently complex systems will always remain an after the fact reconstruction, insoluble by the sheer number (possibly infinite number) of inputs required to create a mathematically complete starting state. That is what I was addressing in my last paragraph when I said that in chaotic systems, “determinism can only look backwards for explanations, in cannot predict the future.”

  • Midwesterner (Wisconsin, USA)

    Jaded,

    If human beings cannot under identical circumstances chose either path A or path B, then there can be no accountability, no judgement, no responsibility and no value to anything.

    If they can “under identical circumstances chose either path A or path B”, then randomness is possible and it faces the problems I discussed. The only choices are “random” and “not random” If there is a “correct” free will choice, it is consequential moral determinism and relies on a value system that must be scientifically provable. Do you really mean to argue for “scientific morality”? It seems to me that has already been tried with unpleasant results (at least by my values).

    It may be that I am predetermined to recognize that responding to a belief in determinism in the way you describe carries very bad consequences and somebody else is predetermined to not make that observation and make very bad choices. This, in a chaotic system, is no less determinist than Newtonian mechanics, it just defies prediction. It may be that life is like watching a movie and not knowing how it will end.

    The points of my comment are that using scientific method to prove free will is not possible. People who interpret determinism to embrace passive acceptance of ‘destiny’ face ugly fates. I can act as though I have free will w/o needing to prove it – which is good because arguments for free will have an unsettling way of devolving into collectively imposed religious or social value enforcement systems.

    Occam’s razor says K.I.S.S. so I seek company of people who share my values without requiring them to share my values for the ‘scientifically correct’ reasons. If Paul wants to believe that God gave him a spiritual soul and knowledge of good and evil, fine as long as our moral codes can tolerate each other. If Perry wants to believe that a physical process can compute values without being determinist, so long as his values are compatible with mine, fine. If I want to suspect that my brain may be a chaotic system (stop snickering) yielding results that are the result of chaotically complicated biochemistry, as long as those resulting values are compatible with Paul’s and Perry’s, does it really matter? The pleasant advantage of individualism is that I can tolerate anybody who tolerates me.

    But here is the key that you may be missing. If somebody will not tolerate my system of values, those people that you and I (by different rationalizations) both determine to be depraved evil, are not entitled to dispensation. The leap from “maybe they are predestined to be evil” to “therefore it can’t really be evil” is without merit. I don’t need to judge you (or a shark or a meteor) to be responsible for your conduct to still act in my own defense. If you (or a shark or a meteor) are a threat to harm me or people who’s values I reciprocate, I will act against you (or the shark or the meteor) without hindering my self defense by needing to justify it.

    There is very great danger in trying to prove one self to be morally right. Scientifically “proving” morality is ontologically no different than arguing from a religious construct. Once you open morality to be universally judgable by your values, you open the field to others who have reached different conclusions and values. It is unnecessary. I only seek reciprocity. Why you reciprocate is your own business.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I hadn’t read that Dawkins quote before in which he says blame and responsibility are “useful fictions”. Oh dear. As Paul Marks says, the logical consequence of Dawkins’ stance is nihilism in drag. To support a moral code “because it is a nice idea and makes people behave well” is flimsy if, at the same time, you are decrying the harshness we use to describe murderers, or the high praise we confer on heroes and creators. It means that a huge chunk of our vocabulary, on the determinist’s logic, is redundant. Even the idea of people having intentions, or being able to form concepts, etc, must be regarded as a pointless illusion.

    People like Dawkins and others cannot live by their own determinist code. To do so is logically impossible for a living creature. And that seems to be a pretty big smackdown argument against determinism.

  • brokky

    indeed MW, a shark has no moral agency, yet I will have no compunction about killing it in self defence if it attacks me first. The same goes with a human who tries to kill me.

    also, If we have free will, where in the evolutionary tree did it develop? Do blue-green algae or bacteria have free will, or is their behavior automatic and within the realm of scientific law? Is it only multicelled organisms that have free will, or only mammals? We might think that a chimpanzee is exercising free will when it chooses to chomp on a banana, or a cat when it rips up your sofa, but what about the roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans—a simple creature made of only 959 cells? It probably never thinks, “That was damn tasty bacteria I got to dine on back there,” yet it too has a definite preference in food and will either settle for an unattractive meal or go foraging for something better, depending on recent experience. Is that the exercise of free will?

  • Midwesterner

    Johnathan,

    Blame and responsibility are useful fictions for justifying retaliation or preemptive restraint by a collective against an individual. But self defense needs no moral justification. There is a strong case to be made for an eliminating the fiction of crimes against “the state”, “society”, “God”, “the common good” and returning to the early common law legal system where all crimes were person against person. The criminal/civil law distinction is itself the creation of a government power grab.

    The foundation of an individualist society must always be consent. Finding and enforcing “the one true way” is antithetical to both individualism and consent.

    There is very great danger in trying to prove one self to be morally right. Scientifically “proving” morality is ontologically no different than arguing from a religious construct. Once you open morality to be universally judgable by your values, you open the field to others who have reached different conclusions and values. It is unnecessary. I only seek reciprocity. Why you reciprocate is your own business.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    If they can “under identical circumstances chose either path A or path B”, then randomness is possible and it faces the problems I discussed. The only choices are “random” and “not random” If there is a “correct” free will choice, it is consequential moral determinism and relies on a value system that must be scientifically provable. Do you really mean to argue for “scientific morality”? It seems to me that has already been tried with unpleasant results (at least by my values).

    I’m not trying to argue for that Mid (at least not here), just that humans are capable of weighing up alternatives and then volitionally choosing one in preference to another i.e. they are capable of making choices which can then be evaluated using whatever empirical/moral/religious criteria you wish.

    I’m also arguing that regardless of what standard you judge any given behaviour against, without the notion that things could have transpired differently but for the will of a human all notions of good/bad and collapse into meaningless because then the world is forever in the state in which it must be, and could never have been any different, and barring changes in external stressors over which we exercise no control will never be different.

    This leads to fatalism.

  • Midwesterner

    I don’t know brokky. We may compare to the semiconducting brain planets of the Encephalon archipelago much as C. Elegans compares to us. Does that make the brain planets’ will more free than ours? Occam’s razor is my friend.

  • Midwesterner

    Jaded,

    I’m also arguing that regardless of what standard you judge any given behaviour against, without the notion that things could have transpired differently but for the will of a human all notions of good/bad and collapse into meaningless because then the world is forever in the state in which it must be, and could never have been any different, and barring changes in external stressors over which we exercise no control will never be different.

    This leads to fatalism.

    So I’m guessing you never read books or watch movies?

    Also, Jaded, you seem to have missed a point I was careful to make up the thread. You will make choices whether you want to or not. Those choices will have consequences whether you like it or not. You cannot know the future or what those consequences (or even your own future choices) will be. You have no choice but to choose. You can no more know the future whether choice is determinist or free will. If you are of a fatalistic bent, I suspect you will find a way to rationalize it, if you are of a proactive bent, I suspect you will find a way to justify it.

    Enjoy life. Ask questions. Don’t take your toys and ‘go home’ if answers are not readily available. Whether life is determinist or not, I will keep turning the pages to see what comes next. I will try the buttons and levers to make things happen. I will experience joys and regrets based on the results. If it is determinism that makes me take this attitude, I don’t really care, because it is who I am.

  • Paul Marks

    Dr Dawkins did not present an “argument” – and a self evident truth (such as the existance of the “I” – agency) is not a matter of “argument” anyway.

    David Hume was wrong on this – and Thomas Reid was right.

    In American terms…….

    The replacement of (the retireing) James McCosh with Woodrow Wilson (at Princeton) was a step DOWN.

    In modern British terms…..

    Antony Flew should have got an academic place in Oxford – where those wretched Logical Positivists were ignoring the wisdom of Harold Prichard (and C.E.M. Joad – see his “A Critique of Logical Positivism”) and driving other people of sense from the university.

    “Today we choose to ride with the King of Poland Paul, as if at Vienna in 1683 in the face of the Ottomans. We will drive back the so called Laws of History, and all the determinist forces of the universe – or we will die trying.”

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    This reminds me of a Psychology lecture I went to where a quite evidently conscious and voluntarily present researcher argued that consciousness and free will are an illusion. Sort of a “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” thing I guess.

    It’s areas like this that get me wondering if humanity has rather too much time on its hands. Getting up in the morning and deciding to go and speak to a bunch of Psychologists about how you didn’t really decide anything at all is only one rung up from denying your audience exists altogether.

  • Midwesterner

    Several problems, Jaded.

    Your approach requires not just my reciprocity, but that I do it for the right (your) reasons. No dice. I will reciprocate or not according to my own reasons.

    Your insistence on a cooperative rejection of the possibility of determinism is without any scientifically valid rational basis. It is pursuit of ‘science by consensus’. I am willing to tolerate (without necessarily endorsing) either position, determinism or free will. If you can prove free will, present your proofs.

    You haven’t explained how using deviation from a determinist (preordained/preexisting) and of necessity collectively administered moral construct for judgement of the proper exercise of “free will”, differs from a determinist physical existence with physical consequences for things like denying gravity. If moral law is written in its consequences, then how does it differ from physical law?

    You hold a determinist moral construct (I don’t get the slightest impression you adhere to any form of moral relativism) and yet don’t distinguish how determinist morality with consequences differs from determinist physics with consequences.

    To try to put this clearly, if there is a ‘true’, ‘moral’ framework separate from and superior to those who it works on, that is determinism. It differs from gravity and the Newtonian mechanics of bullet only in how long and complicated of a process occurs before the preordained consequences of a given act within that construct levies its penalties.

    For there to be only one true moral code, one must deny the existence of “values”. A value construct cannot exist in the absence of multiple options. Without options, debating values is senseless and takes on the character of arguing the merits of the law of gravity.

    In the end your argument cannot escape from determinism, but only note that distance and complexity do not allow avoidance of the consequences of ignoring (determinist) moral laws. Insisting on free will requires a great deal of unsupportable intellectual baggage and in the end, still falls back on a more complicated formulation of determinism.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Mid, if indeed there is an external moral standard (and I would argue there is), that is not the same as determinism for the simple reason people can and do ignore it.

    Let me pose you a question:

    If human beings are indeed not in control of their own behaviour, but merely passively reacting to external stimuli impacting the current neural configuration in their brains – then what is the difference between Adolpf Eichmann and Oscar Schindler?

    Both of them did a bunch of stuff that was determined by a combination of environment and genetics, but neither was responsible for the initiation of that behaviour. If free will doesn’t exist Eichmann could have no more stopped himself from engineering the Final Solution any more than an asteroid could stop itself from hitting Jupiter.

    Save a few thousand jews, murder a few million – without personal culpability for our actions what’s the difference?

  • Midwesterner

    If human beings are indeed not in control of their own behaviour, but merely passively reacting to external stimuli impacting the current neural configuration in their brains – then what is the difference between Adolpf Eichmann and Oscar Schindler?

    One I ally myself with, one I shoot on sight.

    Why?

    I have values that draw from my spiritual (not in the mystical but in the emotional self fulfillment sense) nature and I construct morals that support and protect my spiritual nature. As a practical matter, I seek the alliance of others who are willing to reciprocate my moral code. Schindler is, Eichmann is not. Schindler is a kindred in moral matters if not of necessity in spiritual nature (that part is optional). Eichmann is (to me, Schindler and others who reciprocate my moral code) an “outlaw”. He is beyond the protections, restraints and benefits of alliance with me and those I associate with. Shoot on sight.

    If you want to characterize my simplistic approach as moral relativism, perhaps. It is certainly principled moral activism.

    Frankly, I care no more about Eichmann’s motives and values than I do about the motives and values of yersinia pestis. Caring why is a waste of time. NMP, just deal with them and carry on.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    But Mid, what you are proposing is utterly antiethical to the concept of liberty. I’ll toss in an exerpt from one of my favourite CS Lewis novels:

    …the Fairy pointed out that what had hampered every English police force – up to date was precisely the idea of deserved punishment. For desert was always finite: you could do so much to the criminal and no more, Remedial treatment, on the other hand, need have no fixed limit; it could go on till it had effected a cure, and those who were carrying it out would decide when that was, And if cure were humane and desirable, how much more prevention? Soon anyone who had ever been in the hands of the police at all would come under the control of the N.I.C.E.; in the end, every citizen, “And that’s where you and I come in, Sonny,” added the Fairy, tapping Mark’s chest with her forefinger. “There’s no distinction in the long run between police work and sociology. You and I’ve got to work hand in hand.”

    As soon as you say a person is not capable of controlling their behaviour, you render their moral utility simply the sum of their biological frailties. Governments around the world use this very argument as a rationale for brutally trying to “fix” deviants, and for destroying those they deem unfixable.

    Individual Liberty only makes sense if a man can indeed say “I have it in my heart to do something evil today, and I choose as a free man not to act upon this impulse”. The whole premise of freedom oriented thinking is that you think the best of your fellow man until they give you cause to do otherwise, and require them to do likewise (at least with their actions if not their thoughts).

  • Midwesterner

    As soon as you say a person is not capable of controlling their behaviour, you render their moral utility simply the sum of their biological frailties.

    But I don’t say an other person is anything at all. It is not my prerogative to sit in judgement over the merits and deeds of others. As long as they are not attacking me, I have no jurisdiction (moral or otherwise) over them. Period. If they attack me, then I claim the right of self defense. If they are in fact brain damaged, then I will, at my own discretion either directly or bound by the terms of my association with others, accept other arrangements for my safety, ie, helping to support their supervised care. I have a cousin who was very badly brain damaged by illness as an infant. As children we were always taught to be very careful for our own well being around him, and to protect him in anyway we could in light of the first instruction. To this day he is occasionally committed to hospitals were he is (literally, I understand) placed in a padded room while his medications are withdrawn and recalibrated. This is not a service I, society, or anybody else owe to him. It is something we elect to do because that is the sort of society we want to live in. It suits my spirit to help the helpless and to associate with people who do.

    But in no way do I claim the moral right to exercise any jurisdiction over anybody until they do me harm.

    Governments around the world use this very argument as a rationale for brutally trying to “fix” deviants, and for destroying those they deem unfixable.

    Wow, that is hardly an argument against determinism. It appears to be a pretty clear argument in favor of very strict limitations on government power and collectivism in general.

    Individual Liberty only makes sense if a man can indeed say “I have it in my heart to do something evil today, and I choose as a free man not to act upon this impulse”.

    Huh? I didn’t realize that “Individual Liberty” needed to make sense. I certainly don’t want to depend on it making sense to stipulate it as part of my reciprocal association with others. And besides, who gets the final vote on if it “makes sense” or not?

    The whole premise of freedom oriented thinking is that you think the best of your fellow man until they give you cause to do otherwise, and require them to do likewise (at least with their actions if not their thoughts).

    Er, no. I don’t have to think anything one way or another about my “fellow man”. Frankly I think some people are loathsome but they aren’t doing no one else any harm, so my opinion is uncalled for. Literally, there is no call for my verdict on their merits as human beings. The whole premise of “freedom oriented thinking” is “you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone” along with its corollary, “and if you don’t, we have a problem.”

  • Kolya

    May I suggest that what we experience as human agency is manifestation of natural laws determining the physical evolution of the universe?

    Put another way, when we follow our preferences we are making a free choice and acting deterministically.

  • Er,…it has already been suggested:-)

  • Laird

    “It is not my prerogative to sit in judgement over the merits and deeds of others. As long as they are not attacking me, I have no jurisdiction (moral or otherwise) over them.” So why do you shoot Eichmann on sight?

  • Midwesterner

    It is that “as long as they are not attacking me” qualifier. If somebody says they are going to cleanse society of my existence, or the existence of people I reciprocally associate with, they flunk that part about not attacking me. Eichmann waged unprovoked attacks. He demoted himself from a person to be tolerated into a threat to be dealt with. The key here is “reciprocity”, reciprocal tolerance. If you don’t give it, you don’t get it.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    So what if someone is attacking someone you do not reciprocally associate with? For example a 5 year old child you have never met before, or a single mum just stepped off the banana boat who doesn’t speak a word of English.

    Do you just walk on by, or do you act?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I should add that determinists – well, some of them anyway – are committing the fallacy of material reductionism when they talk about how the brain works. If we reduce consciousness to the firings of neurons or whatever – we don’t actually explain anything beyond a certain point. It is like trying to explain what a chair is by reference just to the atoms it is composed of, not the shape of the chair, its use, style, etc.

    I also have come to the view that while we can start by observing how a person’s brain might work by reference to such elementary observations, it does not then tell us much about the complex interactions that are subsequently set in motion.

    Part of the problem is that some atheists like Sam Harris are rightly scornful of people who use “God” or some other “magic” to explain stuff that cannot be explained by reference to determinist ideas. But their worries are misplaced. There are plenty of ways we can show free will/volition occurs and exists without any of this, so their fears are misplaced. (

    By the way, as an aside, I noticed that some, if not all, of these “new atheists” are drearily predictable and often authoritarian in their political opinions, which hardly says a lot about their grasp of logic in subjects outside of their presumed area of expertise. Take a look at Tim Sandefur’s masterly take-down of Sam Harris’s political views.

  • Paul Marks

    Sam Harris appears to confuse society with state, and cooperation with coercion.

    Not goood.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I just realised we’re talking about the guy who believes that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of killing people for holding wrong beliefs…

    It’s funny how people who claim to be anti-religion end up founding their own one, aint it?

  • Midwesterner

    So what if someone is attacking someone you do not reciprocally associate with? For example a 5 year old child you have never met before, or a single mum just stepped off the banana boat who doesn’t speak a word of English.

    Do you just walk on by, or do you act?

    Jaded, for somebody who says: “The whole premise of freedom oriented thinking is that you think the best of your fellow man until they give you cause to do otherwise,” you seem eager to put the worst possible interpretation on everything I say. Earlier, in reference to a helpless person, I said:

    This is not a service I, society, or anybody else owe to him. It is something we elect to do because that is the sort of society we want to live in. It suits my spirit to help the helpless and to associate with people who do.

    Is that not clear enough? Perhaps you are trying to build a society where we are forced to help the “helpless” when our better judgement says not to? Isn’t that what we have now?

    In a society governed by the group’s collective will, two distinct realities emerge. Extracting “help” from others becomes a lifestyle choice complete with advocacy groups, voting blocks and political campaign funding and ultimately even trade unions. Secondly, a collective’s structural priority is the collective’s health, not that of the helpless individual. It is morally wrong in a collective, to waste resources on a non-contributing member of the collective.

    If you want to live in a society where it is morally permissible to ‘waste’ time and resources helping somebody who can’t (and may never be able to) help ‘society’, then you must choose a society where you personally, the individual not the collective, make those choices. Any society where “help” can be forcibly extracted from members, is by all measures collectivist.

    We seem to have drifted away from discussing whether or not the laws of physics compel determinism. What happens on reel two does not alter what we see on reel one. Whether or not it is already filmed and waiting in the projection booth we are not privy to that knowledge. Whether determinism is or is not written in the laws of physics is purely an intellectual exercise. We cannot know the future and, like going back in time and preventing our parents from meeting, attempts to alter our destiny based on whether or not we believe in determinism are either impossible or mistakes.

    The “fatalism” you describe as the consequence of determinism is the wrong response regardless of whether or not determinism is the case. Live and act on free will. But if you think you have found a proof of free will that holds up to scientific standards, please present it. In the mean time I am content to live and let live and not worry about whether or not the laws of physics determine what my choices will be. They are still my choices. Even if determinism is the case, the laws of physics still cannot compel me to act against my will, they can only anticipate what my will will be.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    In the mean time I am content to live and let live and not worry about whether or not the laws of physics determine what my choices will be. They are still my choices. Even if determinism is the case, the laws of physics still cannot compel me to act against my will, they can only anticipate what my will will be.

    If determinism is true then this statement makes no sense.

    There is no you, there is no contentment, there is no worry, there are no choices and there is no will. You are not really here. You are no thinking these thoughts. You do not exist.

    All there is is a meat machine grinding its way through the universe responding to outside stimuli the only way it can, with the only variety being provided by purely quantum level variations. Every argument you’ve presented today would simply be static produced by a highly complicated computer as a by product of its real function, and the same would be true for me.

    And if we really are just two animals making noises at one another, what would be the point of this conversation?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    And I should add that in terms of “proof” of free will, philosophy has known since at least 1647 that even demonstrating other people exist is an intractable problem operating purely from first principles. In fact Cogito Ergo Sum has since been observed to be way too optimistic, it should have been written “There is thought, therefore something exists” – there is no guarantee at all that the thinker is you. That’s it – The Rock of Solipsis. Using first principles alone there is no way off of it.

    One possible route out of this problem is proposed by people like Ayn Rand. One of the tenets of Objectivism is that truth is obtainable through the mechanism of our senses. If we accept this as a starting point, then questions like “Do I really have free will?” go out the window along with “Am I having these thoughts or are they the work of an evil genius?”

    If you are not willing to accept the evidence of your own senses that you are a conscious, rational being, then there’s a whole lot more than the concept of “free will” that you need to jettison. Everything in fact.

  • JV, it seems to me that while Mid is agnostic on the question of whether reality is predetermined, you reject the idea altogether – because if you acknowledge the possibility of that idea being true, it entirely pulls the rug under your entire moral system. Am I correct?

  • …pulls the rug *from* under…etc.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Alisa, a determinist world would pull the rug out from under all moral systems, not just my own.

    Morality is concerned with the distinction between good and bad. However in a determinist world all there is is input and output. The factors acting on an organism, and the behaviour it produces as a consequence.

    To try and label them “good” or “bad” would be like labelling “4+2=6″ as “good” whilst labelling “7-3=4″ as “bad”.

    Projects like Samizdata itself would lose all purpose. If liberty or slavery are just the bottom line in long equations concerning the disposition of multicellular organisms, why should one be preferable to the other?

  • Morality is concerned with the distinction between good and bad.

    Actually, I see it differently: morality is concerned with the relationship between an individual and the society of which he is a member. Unless you are a religious person, in which case we would have to stop here and agree to disagree – is that the case?

  • …where by ‘society’ I of course mean other independent individuals, not a collective.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I am, but that’s not the issue here. Surely you are confusing morality with ethics, Alisa?

    Typing “Define: Morality” into google yields:

    mo·ral·i·ty
    /məˈralətē/
    Noun

    Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
    Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

    And that chimes pretty well with my copy of the OED. In any case the issue at hand here is that certain states of organisms are preferable to other states.

    But if those organisms do not posses agency, then surely what they “want” or “prefer” is neither here nor there. Things will turn out how they must, and my liking or disliking it will have no effect whatsoever on the outcome.

    The content of human history goes from a bunch of good & bad things that happened, to “just a bunch of stuff that happened” which happened to bring us to where we are today.

  • OMG, he throws a dictionary at me – where are your manners, young man?:-)

    ‘Good and bad’ only have meaning in the context of relationship between human, and possibly between humans and god – for those humans who believe in god.

    My take on this is not that there is no agency – there very much *is* an agency. What I don not know is whether the physical process that created the agency is predetermined or not. I also don’t why is this important – can you explain? Why can’t you and I agree on the existence of agency, without addressing its origins?

  • …’between humans’…damn sticking keys.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I am tempted to throw in a parting shot as I bow out, but I’ll extend you more courtesy than that and admit that my arguments from this point largely rehash the ones I have already used. I don’t think there is anything to be gained from going down that road for the simple reason that this is a very problematic debate since those on either side of it use the same terms but mean different things by them. This creates conflicts which are not readily identifiable which unexpectedly muddy later, seemingly simple, points of argument.

    Speaking for my self I find determinism a horrible, pernicious doctrine. I say this not only because of the sorts of things it has been used to justify in the past, but also because of the doors it potentially opens for the future. If widely adopted in it’s “hard” form (the total absence of free will) it has the capacity to take humanity to places where we cease to possess the attributes which have commonly been used to define what it is to be a human being. I find this very troubling.

    Nonetheless, with the exception of Elrond, I appreciate the civil tone and high standard of debate found here at Samizdata.

    I like to thank Mid in particular for raising some very thought provoking points. I disagree with you 100%, but that’s OK. Thank you also to Alisa.

    I will now leave this one for braver souls than myself.

    Best Regards

  • Thank you, JV – it is always a pleasure.

  • Tedd

    We don’t understand how consciousness arises from biological processes. Hence, as Midwesterner says, belief in free will “lacks scientifically valid support.” What is screamingly obvious to me is that the first statement is the cause of the second. We have no scientific support for a belief in free will because we don’t understand the science well enough yet. To conclude that free will doesn’t exist, or is some kind of useful illusion, because we haven’t yet explained it is about as rational as it would have been to conclude, before we knew anything about electricity, that lightning didn’t exist.

    I believe in free will. I also believe there is life on other planets. Yes, both beliefs are “unscientific” in that science has not yet provided support for either. But, seriously, does anyone doubt that it will?

  • Paul Marks

    “morality is the relationship between an individual and the society of which they are a member”.

    Firstly, if determinism is correct, there is no “individual” (just flesh robots – no more “indivduals” that clocks).

    Nor is morality got anything to do with “the relationship with society”.

    If one meets a person (an agent – regardless of whether they are a human or an alien race of beings) one should not plunder or murder them. Regardless of them being part of a different “society”.

    As for “society” – there is no such person as society, civil society is simply the incredibly complicated web of relationships between individuals and private associations.

    Society must not be treated as if it were an individual – an enity.

    This is what Mrs Thatcher was trying to explain when she said “there is no such thing as society” – a remark that was (deliberatly) misunderstood.

    By the way – none of the above has anything to do with religion.

  • Paul, you are (deliberately?) ignoring my consequent clarification. Seriously. You know I meant ‘individuals’ even without it.

  • Midwesterner

    J. V.,

    First let me repeat what Alisa said, it is always a pleasure to debate with you. I am always eager to have my mind changed because I would not change it if I didn’t think I was bringing to into stronger alignment with the laws of physics or, as the Founders of the American system phrased it, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”. And feel free to quote C.S. Lewis liberally. I may occasionally disagree with him but he is one of my favorites and The Great Divorce is perhaps the best presentation ever of the goodness of accepting reality and the nature of the evil that rejects it.

    Now, back to the arguing in search of understanding.

    Your conclusions are rationally unsupportable (and completely contrary to evidence). Your 7:04PM comment is irrelevant to whether physical reality is determinist or not. I am not the one trying to prove anything. I am demanding you to prove your passionately held belief that determinism is impossible. If proofs are not possible, then you must drop that insistence or acknowledge it is based on faith not reason. If it in fact turns out to be based in faith, then our best course is to agree on our rules of civil association and forget about justifying our rules to each other. I think this is very much what was intended and achieved in the American constitutional documents. I think it even explains the phrasing “of nature and of nature’s God”.

    Onward to logic and rational process. I’ll try this several ways and see if any are clear. You appear to be desperate to renounce determinism in order to avoid the fate you describe.

    You state (double check my edit in case I have mischaracterized your statement’s meaning):

    If determinism is true then [...] There is no you, there is no contentment, there is no worry, there are no choices and there is no will. You are not really here. You are no thinking these thoughts. You do not exist.

    Clearly we do experience all of those things. In the absence of falsification of determinism, and since those things do in fact exist, they must be considered possibly compatible with determinism. Their compatibility hinges not on your projected consequences a determinist existence, but on the answer to the determinism question itself. You have the cart before the horse. Consequentialist arguments against determinism are nonsensical. If you are determined by non-random process to experience something, then you experience it.

    You’ve been unable to present any sound argument against determinism, so you raise all of these boogeymen as being consequences of determinism. I don’t know how to convey to you the preposterousness of arguing against determinism on the basis of the consequences. The debate isn’t about who and what we are. It is about whether who and what we are is the result of random or not-random processes.

    I don’t know how to explain this to you because it is so blindingly obvious to me, but I’ll try.

    You say it is impossible if determinism is the case for us to experience things we clearly do experience.

    You cannot disprove determinism.

    Ergo, statement one is irrational. Not necessarily wrong, but irrational. It is a belief that falls into the realm of metaphysics and faith.

    Another way of saying what you are saying is that once we must be something, we cease to be that thing. You are claiming that if we must be the person we are, then we cannot in fact be the person we are. Utterly nonsensical.

    I was raised in a very theology conscious family and recall having a very similar discussion with my father. In that case, he was making the argument that angels cannot be “good” because they do not have free will. Only humans can be “good” because we have the option to be “evil”. This goes to the discussion of eating of from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

    I don’t know how to argue against faith based beliefs. All I know how to do is demand evidence. I’ll have to leave debates over the merits of various faiths to someone else. If you can present a rational argument that solidly and rationally debunks the possibility of determinism, not one based on your feelings or guesses about consequences, then I am interested. If not, let’s just agree to play by the same rules even if we cannot agree on the reason for those rules.

  • I don’t know how to argue against faith based beliefs.

    You can’t, and therefore you shouldn’t.

  • Paul Marks

    I must have missed your clarification Alisa.

    My apologies.

  • No no no, wait: I have a dictionary to throw at you!

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Mid’s reply was so comprehensive that I owed him a response.

    I willingly concede that it is quite possible that I am a being that for various neurological reasons is wired in such a way that it thinks it has free will, whereas this cognitive process is in fact a form of illusion. This is true in exactly the same way that I may be a thinking entity alone on the Rock of Solipsis in an otherwise empty universe, or that I may in fact be Commander Riker trapped in a holodeck malfunction and the Thorium leak is screwing with my brain.

    All of these may be true, and I cannot prove them not to be.

    The only arguments I can make against these positions are arguments from parsimony (it is simpler to accept reality as it appears), an argument from morality (it is better to assume our actions have moral consequences) and utility (it is more expedient to assume I am capable of effecting change in my own life and in the world, lest I fall into nihilistic despair).

    I absolutely accept that all of these fall short of irrefutable proof. However, I would content that most of what we perceive as reality could be shown to be equally as unfounded.

    In order to function, we need to arrive at a set of core principles from which to build others. For me at least “My actions have consequences for which I am morally responsible” is a fairly major one.

    You are claiming that if we must be the person we are, then we cannot in fact be the person we think we are.

    I would agree with your above statement, with the bold insertion. If I have no choice other than to be the man that I am, then I am not the free man I thought I was.

    Some philosophers think this is fine, including all of the implications it has for personal morality. I do not. I find it to be a despair inducing vision.

    Which brings me to another CS Lewis quote which I think about sums up my position on the matter:

    All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst of things and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. . .Then all I can say is, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just four babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia. So . . . we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think, but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

  • Midwesterner

    Good Old Puddleglum! Prince Caspian is one of my favorites and I do like Puddleglum. “Respectobiggle.” I have a friend who is very much Puddleglum personified and if civilization does collapse, I can only hope he is fighting along side of me and my other friends.

    I will abandon logic and drift back into the theological debates of my youth.

    Do you believe God is all-knowing?

    Do you believe that God knows the future?

    Do you believe God knows what you will do before you know it?

    Do you believe that foreknowledge diminishes your humanness and power to choose? After all, your only option is to do what God already knows you are going to do.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Now we’re touching on the very foundations of my personal philosophy, Mid.

    The vcore of pretty much all of my thinking these days is this:

    -God created man.
    -Man chose to disobey God and introduce Sin into the world.
    -The introduction of Sin forced God into a choice between destroying Man, or sacrificing his Son in order to save them.
    -God is all-knowing and as a result knew what Man would do with his freedom.
    -To avoid this outcome all He need have done is create Man as automata, incapable of Sinning.
    -Yet, knowing what it would cost Him, God created man with a free will.
    –Therefore, that men are free is the most important thing in the world to God, since he paid a price beyond reckoning for it.

    As a consequence I resolved myself to oppose anyone and anything that seeks to put men in chains, especially chains upon their will and minds.

    As to how pre-destination and free-will mesh, there’s a CS Lewis quote for that as well which I can’t quite find. But it is to the effect that you are free from moment to moment, but God knew what you were going to do so it was in His plan – so with an Omnisicient God freedom and predestination are the same thing.

    Although I suspect this particular argumentative thread is rather too heavy on the Theology for most Samizdatistas.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    MidW. In answer to your last question, the Rabbies believe that God knows the outcome of any decision, but not how you will choose. It’s like being in a maze- your path is your own, but the destinations are knowable. Hence free will in a deterministic universe.

  • Midwesterner

    C’est la vie.

    “We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future.”

    If finding a way that people from as different of personal belief systems as you and I can cooperate to “oppose anyone and anything that seeks to put men in chains, especially chains upon their will and minds “, then this discussion is core to my understanding of the purpose of Samizdata.

    During this discussion, in a strange way, I feel like I have been arguing with my own younger self. I was raised in a devout fundamentalist Christian family. My present ‘theology’ if you will, came from the realization that if God wrote the laws of physics, and I can find clear and honest demonstration of those laws of physics, then that is God speaking directly, in the first person. Anyone who is arguing against them is arguing against God’s laws and God.

    A bunch of human middle men prefacing their statements with “God told me …” who then make claims that defy the unmistakable laws of physics, of God in the first person, do not get the benefit of the doubt. ‘Miracles’ imply a system in need of a ‘program patch’, not the creation of a perfect God. Alternative creation theories and refutations of the possibility of things like dinosaurs (not unusual ‘back in the day’) or the age of the stars would require a deceiving creator God putting false evidence into his creation.

    If a perfect creator created a perfect system, then ‘miraculous’ tampering with that system is either fixing something that is broken, or caprice. Neither is compatible with the concept of a perfect God so either the concept of a perfect God is flawed or the claims of miracles and other denials of hard evidence are flawed. Even accusing someone of defying God’s law is demeaning to an all-powerful being. When God writes a law, like gravity, you don’t defy it, you demonstrate it.

    At some point, it dawned on me that if there is a God, the surest and safest way to know and learn his will is to study the physics of Creation (existence), not to rely on the words of self professed prophets and intermediaries. If there is no God, then the best choice is to study and learn the laws of physics and reality. In other words, an honest seeker of God not looking for shortcuts or special privileges and dispensations and claims against others should study “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and an atheist or agnostic seeking knowledge should study the laws of physics. In either case the course of action is the same and the God question fades.

    Humility can say “I don’t know” when hubris or fearful insecurity makes up a manipulative or reassuring answer.

  • Tedd

    Midwesterner:

    If you can present a rational argument that solidly and rationally debunks the possibility of determinism, not one based on your feelings or guesses about consequences, then I am interested. If not, let’s just agree to play by the same rules even if we cannot agree on the reason for those rules.

    What if I present an argument that solidly and rationally debunks not believing in free will, will that do?

    Suppose that free will exists, but you choose to believe that it doesn’t. Odds are, since you subscribe to a rational concept of choice without free will, you will make the same choices you would have made if you believed in free will, so your false belief won’t likely lead to too much trouble. Nevertheless, it’s certainly conceivable that a false belief could lead to negative consequences (they do tend to). Plus, if you live long enough you’ll be proven wrong, which is always annoying.

    Now suppose that free will does not exist, but you chose to believe that it does. You will be just as wrong as in the above example, but what could it possibly matter that you’re wrong? To whom could it matter? Your awareness of your wrongness is just an illusion anyway, so that’s not a problem. There’s no God or absolute consciousness to offend, so that’s not a problem. So long as there’s no free will, it makes not a jot of difference whether you’re right or wrong, or which way you choose to believe.

    So there’s a down side to not believing in free will (though only if it actually does exist), but no down side to believing in it, whether it exists or not. Therefore, belief in free will is the rational choice.

  • Midwesterner

    Tedd,

    So there’s a down side to not believing in free will (though only if it actually does exist), but no down side to believing in it, whether it exists or not. Therefore, belief in free will is the rational choice.

    you may want to go back and read my very first comment in this thread.

    I hold the same opinion on free will as Michael. My observation is that people who believe in predeterminism and act on that belief are definitely, er, not well adapted to survive much less prosper. Whether my choices are predetermined by the laws of physics or not, I perceive free will and act accordingly.

    The passivity that often accompanies belief in determinism, is itself a choice. Whether the choice one makes is predetermined is a philosophical question, not a practical one. Predetermined or not, one still chooses.

    I think this thread is reaching the point of repetition. Long threads tend to do that.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I’d like to note that Alisa and Mid in particular seem to hint at my own understanding. Also, perhaps, Paul, somewhere recently.

    One thing I cannot stress enough (and it goes to part of JV’s latest comment): There is no, NO, non-trivial and logically consistent system of thought that does not rest upon postulates: unproven presumptions about existents within the system and relationships between them, which are the originating “givens” of the system. This is as as true of moral philosophy as it is of any other system. In reasoning about the nature of humans and their faculties (such as free will) you will always hit up on an unprovable assumption.

    Here we go….

    In the more common, or conventional, or traditional conception of “free will,” there is some faculty of human beings which serves as a prime mover–i.e., it is causeless–and yet, simultaneously, it is under the control of the human, the moral agent, the actor. This has been a problem for Western (at least) philosophers since the Greeks. Miss Rand, among others, tried to get around this by saying No, the faculty is not “causeless”–it is caused by the human will. But this begs the question (i.e., the argument already assumes that which is to be proven), because the “causeless” faculty under discussion is the will itself. The question, as always, is, How comes the Will to will as it does?

    For religions which posit the existence of a “soul” distinct from the physical body, this need not* pose a problem; for them, the Soul is the essence of what we are and the driver of what we do, and Free Will simply means that God or the gods allow the Soul to direct, or at least to strongly influence, the person’s actions as it will, without His or their intervention. And they are quite welcome to their understanding, their fundamental postulate; the following analysis is not for them, but for those who are trying to square a reliable principle of cause-and-effect with “Free Will,” whose existence is to most of us (I think) self-evident.

    *[If the religion posits some version of Predestination, the situation can be different. Such doctrines I think are not at issue here, and to discuss them would take us way too far afield.]

    But for the rest of us, it is a problem.

    Now, it is the nature of the human mind that, having formed a concept and then having found the concept logically problematic–or wanting in some other respect–it will seek a different angle, a change to the concept so as to get around the problem. This cannot always be done, but in the case of the concept of Free Will, I think the conventional concept is based on a misunderstanding and must be re-cast slightly if we are to maintain our belief that we live in a cause-and-effect (that is, a rational) universe and yet hold to the idea that real choice exists for each of us, and that we are indeed properly held accountable for the choices we make.

    So, in short:

    “Free Will” arises from the fact that a being possessing the faculty of “will” is not completely constrained from without to behave in a certain manner. It–the being, the entity–is constantly faced with choices. “Shall I turn east or west? Shall I hunt for a job or go on welfare?” It is the system of internal mechanisms, considered in their totality as the system of which the acting being consists, which both enable and require that being to act as it does in any given situation.

    Thus, in what I believe is a much better conception of “Free Will” than the common one, it is the whole man, not some human subsystem or ancillary system, that has “free will” or the ability to “choose”; and this “free will” lies in the perception of the observer, whether he is some other person external to the actor or is the actor observing himself, and not in the disconnection of some subsystem of the acting entity from physical reality and the laws of cause-and-effect which make that reality available to human reason.

    There is a real capacity to choose, and there is real free will, in that it is only the acting individual himself who picks and then acts upon one particular alternative among more than one available.

    I’m hoping to put up a somewhat fuller discussion of this either tonight or tomorrow at countingcats.com, if anyone’s interested.

  • Tony

    I’m new here but thought I’d add something that might be of interest. Someone recently sent me a link to a video lecture by the famous mathematician John Conway, on the subject of free will and in particular his ‘Free Will Theorem’.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will_theorem
    http://hulk03.princeton.edu:8080/WebMedia/flash/lectures/20090323_conway_free_will.shtml

    I’ll have to apologise on two fronts here. Firstly I haven’t had time to read and digest all the discussion so far. And secondly I haven’t done so with Conway’s ‘Free Will Theorem’ either. But thought I’d strike while the iron is hot as I suspect that it might be of relevance for those of a mathematical/philosophical bent.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Tony, thanks for the URL’s. I’ll be interested to look at them.

  • Midwesterner

    Thank you Tony. I’ve only skimmed the Wikipedia article so far but already noticed something interesting. The researchers Conway and Kochen equate “free will” with “not determined by prior events”, which I equate with “random”.

    Up the thread I drew the connection between free will and random outcomes on the logical assumption that if a response is determined by prior events, it is “not random” IOW, determinist. If it is not determined by prior events, it must (not may but “must”) have at least one randomizing variable.

    It will be interesting to see if Conway and Kochens’ work deals with the obstacle of distinguishing random from unrecognized chaotic by observation alone. You’ve pointed me at some interesting stuff. Thanks.

  • tony

    Somewhere in his lectures, Conway does distinguish between free will and randomness. He says they are not the same. It is one of the things that I made a mental note to watch again and think about. Unfortunately I didn’t note the lecture and time where he said that. I’m short of time tonight but will try to locate it tomorrow. If it wasn’t in the lecture I linked to then it must have been one of the others, listed here:
    http://web.math.princeton.edu/facultypapers/Conway/

  • Midwesterner

    Thanks, Tony. I plan to watch some of them this weekend, hopefully.

  • tony

    Just found it. About 10 mins into another lecture:
    http://hulk03.princeton.edu:8080/WebMedia/flash/lectures/20090427_conway_free_will.shtml

    “The behaviour of particles cannot be explained by ‘injecting’ random numbers into a universe that otherwise operates deterministically. “

  • Midwesterner

    tony, thanks for the links. I watched several of his lectures (4 or 5) over the weekend. He is interesting, and I will likely watch them again, but he is not convincing. For one example, he seems to imply or even claim that there is an incompatibility between determinism and probability, that there is no place for probability in a determinist construct. But a determinist could simply define “probability” as the difference between truth and knowledge. He also seems to ignore (in at least the lectures I had time for) chaos and the determinist, but still unpredictable, nature of chaos. He seems to equate predictability with determinism at least some of the time. Doing that kind of pulls the rug out from under some of his arguments.

    I liked the way he repeated the concepts, generally accepted beliefs, and generally recognized problems over and over. I also liked the way he reviewed and discussed the border between an approximately determinist view (Einstein) and a more probabalist/uncertainty view (ie Bohr).

    I’ll probably watch them again because he frames the field very well for laymen to understand. Thank you for those links. Food for thought.