Physicist, Sean Carroll, gives Robert Lawrence Kuhn his take on free will. I was notified about this when it was posted, and given the topical subject matter, I took the 8-odd minutes to listen to it straight away.
I wish I had been there to pose a follow-up question because, although he provided a nice answer, I feel there was more meat on the table.
Like me, Sean is a Determinist who feels that the question of determinism versus indeterminism is beside the point, so we’ve got that in common. Where I feel we may diverge is that I am an incompatibilist and Sean is a compatibilist. I could be interpreting his position wrong, which is what the follow-up question would be.
I say that Sean is a compatibilist because he puts forth the standard emergence argument, but that’s where my confusion starts. Just to set up my position for those who don’t prefer to watch the short clip, as a physicist, Sean believes that the laws of physics, Schrödinger’s equation in particular.
We have an absolutely good equation that tells us what’s going to happen there’s no room for anything that is changing the predictions of Schrödinger’s equation.
— Sean Carroll
This equation articulates everything that will occur in the future and fully accounts for quantum theory. Some have argued that quantum theory tosses a spanner into the works of Determinism and leaves us in an Indeterministic universe, but Sean explains that this is not the case. Any so-called probability or indeterminacy is captured by this equation. There is no explanatory power of anything outside of this equation—no souls, no spirits, and no hocus pocus. So far, so good.
But Sean doesn’t stop talking. He then sets up an analogy in the domain of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics and the ‘fundamental theory of atoms and molecules bumping into each other and [the] emergent theory of temperature and pressure and viscosity‘. I’ve explained emergence in terms of adding two hydrogen and one oxygen atom to create water, which is an emergent molecule with emergent properties of wetness.
My position is that one can view the atomic collection of matter at a moment as an emergent property and give it a name to facilitate conversation. In this case, the label we are applying is free will. But there is a difference between labelling this collection “free will” as having an analogous function to what we mean by free will. That’s a logical leap I am not ready to take. Others have equated this same emergence to producing consciousness, which is of course a precursor to free will in any case.
Perhaps the argument would be that since one now has emergent consciousness—I am not saying that I accept this argument—that one can now accept free will, agency, and responsibility. I don’t believe that there is anything more than rhetoric to prove or disprove this point. As Sean says, this is not an illusion, per se, but it is a construction. I just think that Sean gives it more weight than I am willing to.
“There is no spoon” is a classic line from The Matrix. Reality is a construct. I agree, but I’m not sure I believe that we can get under this reality to experience it differently. And this might hinge on a distinction between experience and perception.
Losing Ourselves is a book just published in the US and forthcoming (July 2022) in the UK promoting the Buddhist notion of no-self or selflessness. I’ve been partial to Buddhism since, when I lived outside of Tokyo, I was exposed to it in 1980.
For me, this intersects with my anti-Agency endeavour. If the Self is a construct, there is no Agent, and without an agent, there is no Agency. I realise that this is a meta-position and not uncontroversial, but I do like to collect ideas and perspectives in my quiver.
Obviously, there seems to be a strong drive (at least in the West) to construct selves, not the least of which serves the purpose of an object to confer praise or blame. Interestingly, I’ve heard much about objectification, but not many seem to care about this form. It’s more about sub-objectification.
It’s OK to parse the person from the fabric of the universe, but don’t further disintegrate that person.
Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?
Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of controlfrom the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.
In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances.
So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.
I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.
Agency is going through the same fits as religion. When Nietzsche regarded society around him at the time, he declared that God is dead and asked now what? This is precisely the same challenge in different clothes.
Without a God to use as a bully pulpit and mechanism of fear, how could we keep people in line in cohesive societies? Without the notion of human agency to allow for responsibility and blame, how can we keep people in line in cohesive societies? Only the predicate has changed, but the question remains, do we persist in lying for the so-called greater good? This is similar to the Santa Claus myth to keep young children in line.
If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.
—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (naturalism.org)
One might like to think that lying is psychologically pathological, but it seems to be a significant part of the human condition. The fundamental question doesn’t appear to be ‘should I tell the truth’, but rather ‘Can I get away with lying?’ Despite all the talk of Truth and integrity, this seems to be the default state of humans. This renders integrity just another lie. But you knew that already, but let’s not fall into another Foucauldian rabbit hole.
We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of ‘free will’: we know only too well what is is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind ‘accountable’. . . Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it… the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty.
— Twilight of the Idols: ‘The Four Great Errors’, 7
I’ve spend some hours cobbling together another video that I labelled Free Will Scepticism: Would-Be Agency & Luck. I’ve embedded it here. The script is below.
Human agency does not exist. Free will is an illusion. Like the appearance that the sun rises in the east and sets and the west, we only appear to have free will.
There are some nuances and varying degrees of this belief, but if one believes in the scientific notion of cause and effect, that every effect is the result of a prior cause of causes, one inevitably ends up in this camp.
Without going into details because the focus of this segment is on luck, I’d still like to set the stage for the uninitiated.
Regarding the universe, we recognise a relationship between cause and effect. If we rewind to follow this logic back to the beginning of time and started again, we’d end up in exactly the same place. This is known as deterministic. What happens next is determined by what happened before.
And this is not just a scientific view. Those who believe that God caused the universe can arrive at this same place.
Owing to advancements in scientific thought, most philosophers today do not believe that the world is deterministic, per se. Given theories of quantum mechanics and probabilistic outcomes, they believe in so-called natural physical laws, but probability is also part of this model.
One may strike a billiard ball with a cue stick to cause it to strike another ball, knocking it into a pocket. In our knowledge of the universe, this is unsurprising. If one set this up mechanically, leaving no room for variation, we could run this scenario over and over again forever, and the ball would go into the pocket every time. The outcome is established by the laws of physics.
Actually, this is just another illusion. The laws of physics cause nothing. They are just a way of describing how things unfold in our universe. But just like saying that the sun rises in the east, we can employ idiomatic language and people know what we mean.
This was an illustration of determinism. Indeterminism accepts these same laws, but it adds an element of probability. In our mechanised billiards example, perhaps a ball is randomly rolled across the table in such a way that it might interfere with the path of the balls.
If the random ball does not interfere with the path, its presence is irrelevant. If it does interfere, there are a few different outcomes.
One, it knocks a ball off course, so the final ball does not go into the pocket.
Two, its path is such that although it collides with a ball, this event does not interfere with the final ball ending up in the pocket, so a person fixated on the pocket might not notice anything more than a slight delay in the occurrence of the event.
The second scenario depicts indeterminism.
In both scenarios, the ball expected to go into the pocket is the would-be agent. As illustrated, the ball itself has no agency. None of them does. Its fate, to borrow a term steeped in metaphysics, is entirely subject to the actions before it. And then there’s chance, so let’s continue.
Humans are ostensibly automatons, subject to their genetic and environmental programming with no degree of free will. Let’s say that in a given context each person can be described by a certain wave function. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just pretend that it can be represented by a sine wave. As with any waveform, we can illustrate it by plotting it on a 2-dimensional plane, having amplitude on the Y-axis and time on the X-axis. Let’s consider this to be analogous to a person’s biorhythm, and let’s further consider that this represents the would-be agent’s mood or propensity to behave a certain way.
Practically, there might be more functions, so let’s just say that this is the average of all of these other functions—perhaps the other functions being how much rest was had the night before, when and what the last meal was, traffic encountered on the way to work, and any number of other personal considerations.
For any stable wave, we can plot the period from peak to peak or trough to trough. Let’s use trough to trough to represent a period of a day but from 2:30 am to 2:30 am rather than from midnight to midnight. This is one complete cycle. The offset is just to more easily facilitate the scenario.
Given this frame, we’ll put noon in the centre between the midnights as expected.
For the purposes of illustration, we’ll draw a horizontal line to represent a threshold depicting a change in disposition. We’ll use this later.
Finally, let’s show time increments by hour, so we now see 24 hours in a day. And we can see that at noon the wave peak rises above the threshold and falls below the threshold again at 5 pm.
Let’s presume that this wave function represents that of a criminal trial judge. There is support for this notion as published in Daniel Kahneman’s 2021 book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, wherein he notes that trial judges are almost as predictable as a watch, that their sentences are more correlated with time of day and the aforementioned factors than anything related to law—save for the laws of time, I suppose.
Remembering that—like all people—this judge is an automaton. Let’s build some character—rather characteristics. Judge Judy believes that people are fundamentally bad and not to be trusted. She believes that they have free will and are accountable for their actions, though she does also allow for extenuating circumstances when considering sentencing, the usual suspects—bad childhood, chemical dependency, and whatnot. People who believe more strongly in free will are more likely to believe in harsher punishment. Judy is no exception.
Using this function as a guide, above the threshold represents her propensity for leniency. She tends to take lunch regularly before noon and is more lenient for a period after lunch. Data show that this effect is closer to a couple of hours after the midday meal, but we are simplifying.
Zooming in, let’s just consider a single day in the life of another would-be agent who as it happens will be interacting with our Judge Judy. I’ll take this opportunity to introduce the work of Neil Levy.
Neil is Head of Neuroethics at the Florey Neuroscience Institutes and Director of Research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.
He is the author of Hard Luck, five previous books, and many articles, on a wide range of topics including applied ethics, free will and moral responsibility, philosophical psychology, and philosophy of mind.
Levy’s book promotes the concept that even if we allow for human agency, much of this supposed agency is undermined by luck. This will not only become evident in the scenario we are working through, but as a human, you may come upon a decision-point, where probability and luck come into play. You have no control over what ideas pop into your head—or don’t—and in what order. The choice you ultimately make is limited to what these ideas are and how they do or don’t manifest. Without going too far astray, perhaps you’ve constructed a false dichotomy.
Perhaps you are confronted by a stranger in a dark alley. You observe that it’s a dead end. The stranger, asking for money, approaches you in a manner you interpret as menacing. As he reaches into his coat, you pull out your concealed weapon and fatally shoot him.
He was unarmed. No longer in panic, you realise that you are not in a dead-end alley.
When the police arrive, they inform you that the person you killed is known` by law enforcement and social services, who have been keeping an eye on him because he had limited cognitive capacity and resided in a group home. Not only was he not armed, but the detective on the scene noted that what he was reaching for were pens with inspirational inscriptions that he routinely sold to earn money.
Whilst you may not have been able to determine that he was otherwise harmless, it was your ‘luck’—bad luck—that you didn’t happen to see that you were never cornered in the first place.
Nevertheless, you are arrested.
In another scenario, perhaps there are two judges. Judge Judy and Justice Joe. As it happens, Justice Joe has a cycle reverse to Judy. Where Judy’s mood is better after lunch, Joe is fasting, and his mood gets worse. This means that your fate now is not only tied to the time of day but it’s also linked to the luck of which judge will hand down your sentence.
If you are a strict determinist, then the “universe” has already determined which judge will sentence you.
If you are an indeterminist, then the universe will flip a coin. And the probability of a case running long or short might determine the time of day.
In the end, as are you, the judges are slaves to their programming, and any alteration of inputs will just be processed through whatever they’ve become until that point. They have no more free will than you do. The die has already been cast.
Do you believe you have free will? If so, why. Are you a determinist or an indeterminist? Or are you a compatibilist who believes that free will and determinism can coexist in the same universe?
The title of this post is admittedly pompous, but I promise it’s relevant. I was chatting with an online colleague about the travails of my anti-agency journey. I’ll lay it out here as well.
About a month or so ago, I embarked to research on my suspicion that human agency is ostensibly hogwash*. I went down many rabbit holes to find the skeletal remains of many rabbits who have embarked on this path before me. I thought I had some unique epiphany and I would just have to articulate my position, but it turns out not to be the case. In fact, it’s a crowded space—lots of skeletal Leporidae. Moreover, many of these blokes are still alive and kicking.
As it happens, we all fit under the large umbrella of free will scepticism, but there are several flavours mostly differentiated by where one prunes the branch. Scepticism of free will is the common bond, but the differences, as one might expect, lead to different implications. Some branches still allow for responsibility—even absent agency—, others even insist on responsibility despite not having agency—and still others, like me, claim responsibility is impossible.
All of these perspectives hinge on the validity and strength of determinism or indeterminism. Soft determinism (AKA compatibilism) allows for free will and determinism to coexist, so that’s not on my radar.
As I’ve cited elsewhere, there are not many non-religious determinists these days, as the state of science and quantum theory pretty much obsoleted the idea. But by my reckoning, from the perspective of the would-be agent, it doesn’t matter because in either case, this person (or other animate objects—no need to overspecify) is affected by the causal chain and does not affect it. This lack of affectation is precisely why we can’t attribute responsibility or desert.
This is not just some philosophical mental masturbation. It turns out that entire legal frameworks are designed on the prevailing held beliefs, and the more degrees of free will a culture assumes people have, the more punitive that society is—and vice versa. More on this in a future post where I intend to write about Gregg Caruso’s perspective and where and how our positions deviate.
The CAUSA SUI is the best self-contradiction that has yet been conceived, it is a sort of logical violation and unnaturalness; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with this very folly. The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness. If anyone should find out in this manner the crass stupidity of the celebrated conception of “free will” and put it out of his head altogether, I beg of him to carry his “enlightenment” a step further, and also put out of his head the contrary of this monstrous conception of “free will”: I mean “non-free will,” which is tantamount to a misuse of cause and effect. One should not wrongly MATERIALISE “cause” and “effect,” as the natural philosophers do (and whoever like them naturalise in thinking at present), according to the prevailing mechanical doltishness which makes the cause press and push until it “effects” its end; one should use “cause” and “effect” only as pure CONCEPTIONS, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and mutual understanding,—NOT for explanation. In “being-in-itself” there is nothing of “casual- connection,” of “necessity,” or of “psychological non-freedom”; there the effect does NOT follow the cause, there “law” does not obtain. It is WE alone who have devised cause, sequence, reciprocity, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive, and purpose; and when we interpret and intermix this symbol-world, as “being-in-itself,” with things, we act once more as we have always acted—MYTHOLOGICALLY. The “non-free will” is mythology; in real life, it is only a question of STRONG and WEAK wills.—It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself, when a thinker, in every “causal-connection” and “psychological necessity,” manifests something of compulsion, indigence, obsequiousness, oppression, and non-freedom; it is suspicious to have such feelings–the person betrays himself. And in general, if I have observed correctly, the “non-freedom of the will” is regarded as a problem from two entirely opposite standpoints, but always in a profoundly PERSONAL manner: some will not give up their “responsibility,” their belief in THEMSELVES, the personal right to THEIR merits, at any price (the vain races belong to this class); others on the contrary, do not wish to be answerable for anything, or blamed for anything, and owing to an inward self-contempt, seek to GET OUT OF THE BUSINESS, no matter how. The latter, when they write books, are in the habit at present of taking the side of criminals; a sort of socialistic sympathy is their favourite disguise. And as a matter of fact, the fatalism of the weak-willed embellishes itself surprisingly when it can pose as “la religion de la souffrance humaine“; that is ITS “good taste.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Just a quote and an image germane to that absurdity of causa sui.
Harvard’s Bob Doyle submits that people have free will in an indeterministic universe (read: agency) because if in the face of some random event an agent can make a choice, then s/he is responsible for that choice. I believe he is mischaracterising or misinterpreting the situation. I’ve composited an illustration to show where he and I interpret the random event differently. I’ve linked and cued the video to where he makes the statement I am reacting to.
The illustration depicts three event chains. My interpretation of Bob’s case is at the top followed by that of a Deterministic universe, followed by that of an indeterministic universe. At the bottom of the illustration is an index running from t-2 to t2, representing time, where t0 represents now, a decision point.
Let’s set the table with the simplest narrative—Determinism. Here, every event that occurs was known since the beginning of time. Every state is the result of past events in a causal chain. Nothing can happen that isn’t caused by a prior event. This is the motion picture we just haven’t seen yet. But anyone who has already seen it can spoil the ending because it’s already known without a doubt.
Regarding the illustration, event t-2 causes t-1 that causes t0 all the way to t2 and beyond.
Bob Doyle, an Interpretation
Although Bob’s case is an interpretation of Indeterminism, let’s consider his position first. Then I’ll suggest where he’s gone astray.
As with the other cases, Bob’s transition from t-2 to t-1 is Deterministic and uncontested. The difference starts where t-1 transitions to t0. In Bob’s world, a random or perhaps a probabilistic event occurs given the agent to make a choice not having been previously determined. Referring to the illustration, because of this event, the agent chooses yes and embarks on the top chosen path, even if the subsequent path is again determined. Bob argues that at t0, the agent has free will, or if we focus our language, is responsible for the decision. By definition, this means that whatever path might be embarked had our agent chosen the lower path will never be known. And that has made all the difference.
Herein lies the rub. As with the prior two event chains, we arrive at t0, as with Bob’s scenario, we encounter a probabilistic (random, stochastic, aleatory, indeterministic) event. It does not follow that this event confers agential responsibility.
For example—not a moral consideration—, the random event involves the outcome of a match by their favourite sports team—or perhaps s/he’s won at Lotto—, our agent had no say in the outcome of the event. From the agent’s perspective—considering the illustration—s/he remains on a path. S/he can wish s/he rooted for the other team or had chosen a different number or ticket, but she had no choice.
To anticipate Bob’s response, perhaps she had won and now chooses to quit her job or take holiday. This should have been predictable knowing our agent’s disposition, character, and propensities. At no point did the agent actually possess even a modicum of agency.
Freedom & Creativity
I don’t know much about Bob or his work, but earlier in the video clip he discusses freedom and creativity. My sense is that he interprets creativity as a sort of emergent property that manifests at the moment. I fundamentally disagree with this assertion. The notion reminds me of Hume’s position that unicorns are simply the mental merger of horses and horns. This is not creation so much as a remix.
Later in the video, Bob clarifies that if something randomly pops into our heads and we make a different decision because of it, this is free will. My counterargument is that he is misusing the term random. An unknown origin does not necessarily mean randomly manifest.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I’ve gotten myself down a free will rabbit hole, and as I’ve said before the problem isn’t about free will. That’s a red herring. The issue ultimately distils down to agency and how one defines you or the self.
First, the notion of you or self is a construct.
Second, the notion that this constructed self somehow has autonomous agency is a meta-construct. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that free will is possible in the face of determinism or indeterminism, which is to say that it is compatible with other of these options. Daniel Dennett seems to say that these things can be compatible, but where they matter are trivial. We have free will to decide if we want tea or coffee, whether to add cream or milk, and whether to add two or three spoonfuls of sugar—or was that honey or unsweetened? But so what?
My argument is that (1) there is no you to decide and (2) even if I accept the notion of you, nothing about you is of your making. Everything about you comes from external forces. The only information you can process comes exogenously from without, and any endogenous interpretive processes rely on external inputs. You are on the titanic, and the best you can do is to rearrange deck chairs.
Peter van Inwagen is a personality I’ve had on my radar, but I haven’t spent any time with him because he is a referenced influence of Robert Kane or Derk Pereboom, who hold positions I disagree with.
Still, I was interested, so I thought watching a short 13-minute video interview might introduce me to him. I’ve enjoyed other Closer to the Truth content, so I gave it a go. I feel that Peter sets up the problem perfectly. No faults whatsoever. As I see it, the same problem and solution proposal arises that Galen Strawson adopts, yet this is where I disagree with them both.
As noam chomsky has speculated maybe our minds are just put together in the wrong way to find this fault we got a certain set of cognitive modules tossed up to us in our evolutionary history maybe we got the wrong ones for thinking about this problem
— Peter van Inwagen
Unless I decide to unpack the rest, I’ll cut to the chase. The argument is as follows:
Humans are somehow hardwired to blame. (I do not know if this is universally true, but let’s accept this premise as being true.)
Without the notion of free will (or at least human agency), we cannot assign blame.
Therefore, in order to assign blame, free will has to be true.
I don’t disagree with this syllogism. However, in ‘free will has to be true’ , there are ostensibly two possibilities.
Free will exists as a fact in nature—a priori
Free will is a construction—a posteriori
Of course, the general consensus for proponents of free will is that it exists a priori. My contention is that this is not the case. Free will is an a posteriori construction.
Inwagen is falling into a heuristic trap: It feels like it’s true, so it’s obviously true. Borrowing from Daniel Kahneman, he and others are relying on System I and failing to trigger System II, where System II is required. Moreover, I take this position because I don’t think System II has what it needs to accurately analyse and assess the situation holistically. We can’t get outside of the system, so we make up a story that presumably serves our purposes.
I am not one who believes ‘the universe is a simulation’, but I do believe it serves as an apt metaphor. We are player characters in the game and we can’t see outside of it.
I like to sum it all up with the expression, the future can be different, just not because of you.