If There is No Free Will, Is Everything Permitted?

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As the brain sciences advance, the space for free will shrinks. Many philosophers, legal analysts, and regular people worry these findings will undercut our moral and legal systems that rely on notions of personal responsibility. If a defendant pleads "not guilty" on the grounds that "my amygdala made me do it," how can we justify punishing him for something over which he had no control?

The New York Times is reporting experiments in which people primed to believe that there is no free will were more inclined to cheat. To wit:

In one [experiment], 30 college students were asked to solve math problems on a computer. Some were first asked to read a passage arguing that most educated people do not believe in free will. The volunteers were told that owing to a computer glitch, the answer would pop up after the problem if they did not the hit the space bar. They were asked to do so but told that no one would know. Members of the group encouraged to doubt free will were more likely to let the answer appear.

In the other study, about 120 students were asked to answer problems on a sheet of paper, with the promise of $1 for each right answer. Those who had read statements skeptical about free will, when allowed to grade themselves and then shred the answer sheet, took more money than they should have, the researchers said.

The findings, they said, raised questions about how human behavior might change if the belief in free will continued to decrease. But they cautioned against reading too much into the results.

But is "free will" really necessary for a system of retributive justice? What is interesting in the above experiments is that the subjects believed that they could not be caught cheating. This illustrates the fact that there is more than a little truth to H.L. Mencken's observation that "conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking." The possibility of punishment acts as a deterrent in even a completely deterministic world.

See my column on "Prozac Justice" about some of the pitfalls of moving from a system of retributive justice to a therapeutic state.

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  1. The volunteers were told that owing to a computer glitch, the answer would pop up after the problem if they did not the hit the space bar. They were asked to do so but told that no one would know.

    How dumb do you have to be to not realize this is the experiment?

    This is why I do not put any stock into idiotic tests like these.

  2. What Episiarch said.

  3. Interesting finding.

    But just like Bailey, my initial reaction was to question why free will – or a lack thereof – has any bearing whatsoever on our justice system. Indeed, a deterministic world might INCREASE the perceived effectiveness of deterrence via criminal punishment.

  4. If we abandon the idea of free will, my pituitary gland made me do it isn’t a defense anymore; its just an explanation.

    I think criminals have a lot to fear if the concept of free will goes away; after all from then on your just naturally criminal and theres nothing to do for it but keep you under lock and key for the rest of your life. And all the apologies in the world won’t help since you can’t actually reform.

  5. There is no such thing as “free will”. Still, we can not help but pretend that there is.

  6. If there is no free will, then Christians and libertarians are in the same boat and none of this moralizing matters a fig.

    Of course, I have prima facie evidence that there is free will.

    Every time one’s mind overrides the body’s natural desire to strangle the living shit out of some asshole that desperately needs it, you have an example of free will at work.

    Or maybe that’s just deterrence at work.

  7. Rereading for the first time in years the essay I linked to above I ran into the following, which reminded my of Radley Balko and Mississippi for some reason:


    But that is not the worst. If the justification of exemplary punishment is not to be based on dessert but solely on its efficacy as a deterrent, it is not absolutely necessary that the man we punish should even have committed the crime. The deterrent effect demands that the public should draw the moral, ‘If we do such an act we shall suffer like that man.’ The punishment of a man actually guilty whom the public think innocent will not have the desired effect; the punishment of a man actually innocent will, provided the public think him guilty. But every modern State has powers which make it easy to fake a trial. When a victim is urgently needed for exemplary purposes and a guilty victim cannot be found, all the purposes of deterrence will be equally served by the punishment (call it ‘cure’ if you prefer0 of an innocent victim, provided that the public can be cheated into thinking him will be so wicked. The punishment of an innocent, that is , an undeserving, man is wicked only if we grant the traditional view that righteous punishment means deserved punishment. Once we have abandoned that criterion, all punishments have to be justified, if at all, on other grounds that have nothing to do with desert. Where the punishment of the innocent can be justified on those grounds (and it could in some cases be justified as a deterrent) it will be no less moral than any other punishment. Any distaste for it on the part of the Humanitarian will be merely a hang-over from the Retributive theory.

  8. You can choose from phantom fears
    And kindness that can kill
    I will choose a path thats clear
    I will choose free will

  9. There is no such thing as “free will”.

    Then do God’s will and kill yourself.

    Those who say “there is no such thing as free will” think they are saying something profoundly insightful about humanity, when they are in fact merely saying something chilling and sad about themselves.

  10. robc –

    That’s a great article. Everyone should read that.

  11. If a defendant pleads “not guilty” on the grounds that “my amygdala made me do it,” how can we justify punishing him for something over which he had no control?

    Same way we can justify quarantining a man who, through no fault of his own, has a deadly airborne-contagious disease that will infect anyone with whom he comes in contact. If you’re a compulsive killer I don’t give a damn if it’s because your cerebellum is defective or your mother didn’t love you enough; I just want you someplace where you can’t keep inflicting your problems onto others.

  12. Much like an insanity defense, a defense based upon brain functions wouldn’t be a get out of jail free card. Defendants would still be subject to institutionalization until they were fixed, and no longer a threat. The scary part isn’t guilty people escaping punishment, but the call to pre-treat people before they commit crime.

  13. If a defendant pleads “not guilty” on the grounds that “my amygdala made me do it,”

    … then I can kill him anyway because MY amygdala made ME do it.

  14. Vlad –

    I think we’re saying that there’s no free will because we aren’t spiritualists. If there is no supernatural, how can there be free will?

    And another question: If there is no free will, is libertarian philosophy negatively impacted? And how so?

  15. “my amygdala made me do it,”

    Yeah, that’s what Darth Vader said. Princess Amygdala made him do it.

  16. Free will exists. There are people who have been to the abyss and know exactly how black it is. They climbed out because the alternatives to making the right choices are rather grim.

  17. If you’re a compulsive killer sex offender I don’t give a damn if it’s because your cerebellum is defective or your mother didn’t love you enough; I just want you someplace where you can’t keep inflicting your problems onto others.

    We fixed that for you.

  18. Hey, I dated Amy Gdala and she made me do a lot of things.

  19. If there is no supernatural, how can there be free will?

    Pardon my ignorance, but hat the fuck does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

  20. Vlad –

    Please tell me where the free will resides.

  21. Vlad –

    Oh, and I forgot an important component of the challenge. Do not reference the supernatural in your description of where the free will resides.

    :]

  22. King Anono,

    The pineal gland, along with your third eye. Duh.

  23. But is “free will” really necessary for a system of retributive justice?

    Eliminating free will unmoors your legal system from any notion of morality, and opens the doors to such things as collective punishment.

    I mean, if retribution/deterrence is the sole goal and basis for the punishments meted out by your anti-crime system, and an individual’s responsibility for the crime is a non-factor, then collective punishment is just the ticket. You get more retribution and more deterrence.

  24. Ignorance of the future creates an illusion of free will. Perfect knowledge of the past and the future would reveal the determined path for everything that happens and every decision you make.

    As for religious free will, it’s a rigged game. The will can only be free in an environment of no consequences. If you must consider the result of every action, your choice can not be freely made.

    A person who is forced at gunpoint to hand over money during a robbery would never be told or considered to have made the choice to hand over his money freely. Decisions to lead a “moral” life are not evidence of free will if the threat of damnation is consequence of choosing wrongly.

    Free will is letting a dog off of a leash into a fenced-in backyard. His cage might be bigger, but he’s still just as much of a prisoner.

  25. SugarFree: puff puff pass, man.

    I kid. I actually dig your analysis.

  26. I cannot tell you where “love” resides. But I know it exists.

    Your punditry is facile.

  27. I don’t believe in God, but what does that have to do with the existence of free will? You’re implying that free will is something God gave us. I say since we invented God, we also invented the free will He gave us.

    We choose to act with civility because we think it is the best way to advance our lives. Not all of us act a certain way only because we are afraid of punishment. I know I could get away with things but I don’t do them because I would know that I was now a scumbag, not because I’m afraid of getting caught. I don’t want the inner feeling that I would have if I was not a good person in my own mind. When people don’t act with civility we punish them, even if it is just a spanking or our collective snear at them. Our civility has been molded by everything in our history. Our history includes the idea that we can choose what we do. That is free will.

  28. FrBunny,

    I’ll try to not bogart the philosophy.

  29. and opens the doors to such things as collective punishment

    Yes, and we’ve all had a little taste of Well, ladies, Private Jerkoff fucked up, now down and give me fifty or the public school counterpart where all the kids get to stay in from recess because the boys at table two won’t stop laughing during lecture.

  30. How come every time I read one of these debates, only the criminals are affected by a lack of free will?

    If there is no free will, how the rest of us end up punishing the criminals is ultimately out of our freely-determined control as well.

    So, the people who don’t believe in free will can just forget about it. Everything is exactly as it should be…

  31. Imprisonment and the death penalty don’t deter murder, or there wouldn’t be so many. Or are you suggesting we would all become murderers, rapists, and thieves if not for those punishments? I disagree we would become bad just because of a present life or afterlife punishment. I think most of us have a desire to be good to each other. That is evidence of free will. I don’t think that conflicts with being a libertarian.

  32. King Anono – I think the basic question is – do you think your thoughts are exclusively a product of your brain chemistry, or do you think your thoughts can influence your brain chemistry? I think I can control my own mind (or maybe it’s the shrooms talking.)

  33. I predict quantum-wave decoherence and metaphysics discussions before the 50th post!

  34. “do you think your thoughts are exclusively a product of your brain chemistry, or do you think your thoughts can influence your brain chemistry?”

    I don’t know, but I can’t stop jacking off. It’s not my brain that has ultimate control here.

  35. I want to get away from this blog, but some overwhelming force compels me to keep posting . . .

  36. RC Dean,

    more deterrence.

    Without free will the concept of deterrence is meaningless. Without free will collective punishment makes even less sense.

    King Anono

    Determinism is not a logical requirement of atheism.

    robc,

    Back-to-back CS Lewis & Rush citations.
    Sweet dude…

    As for the “My Brain made me do it” defense.
    This goes away once people realize that “you” are just and only your brain.

  37. NM,

    Back-to-back CS Lewis & Rush citations.
    Sweet dude…

    As I was posting the Rush, I was wondering if that was an all time first. Just waiting for some one else to notice. I also, within this same thread made a 3rd eye pineal gland reference. A winner is me!

  38. You’re all figments of Descartes’ Evil Genius anyway, so who the fuck cares what you all think?

  39. Ignore him! That’s just Episiarch’s brain talking.

  40. At the risk of being called a hack

    “We can’t see past the choices we don’t understand”

    Regardless of the mechanisms that led you to make the choices you make, the choice is unique to your set of circumstances and nobody else can go through the same set of “on/off” commands to arrive at the same decision. we think that one day we’ll be able to run a computer model and know the entire path of a person’s life by understanding all the on/off commands, but I don’t think that’s possible. I think we might reach a point where we understand general trends, but we’ll never reach the point of understanding all of the variables. Just because you say you don’t believe in free will doesn’t mean that everything is predetermined. You made a choice not to believe and that is a form of free will. All the medical explanations in the world will never reach the point of total understanding and therefore the truly destroy the belief in free will.

  41. “Without free will the concept of deterrence is meaningless”

    I don’t follow. Why couldn’t social sanctions be one of the factors determining my behavior?

    In any case, the great bulk of working philosophers think that free will is compatible with strict causal determinism (a fortiori it’s compatible with naturalism and atheism). There’s something about sophisticated brains, in humans and probably in chimps and gorillas, that enables some sort of deliberate control. There’s clearly a difference between my control over my arm and my lack of control over my kidneys, a difference that can probably be chalked up to the structure of the brain.

  42. “You made a choice not to believe and that is a form of free will.”

    I really doubt anyone has the kind of direct control over their beliefs that normal people have over their arms and legs.

  43. I think we might reach a point where we understand general trends

    I agree.

  44. Dave2,

    Who does then?

    Even if you consider beliefs to be a purely biochemical reaction to external stimuli, you can’t understand all the variables that went into that reaction and therefore have no way to predict what circumstances could cause a repeat reaction. Its biological free will.

  45. You can believe you have no free will if you want to, as for me…

  46. Damn you Hari and you collectivistness.

  47. Ronald Bailey,

    What version of “free will” we talking about here?

  48. Dave2

    I don’t follow. Why couldn’t social sanctions be one of the factors determining my behavior?

    Without free will the concept of deterrence is meaningless, because you can’t deter the inevitable.

    some sort of deliberate control

    Also known as free will.

    the great bulk of working philosophers think that free will is compatible with strict causal determinism

    This requires that your will be allowable as a potential first cause, no?

  49. Neuronal correlates of “free will” are associated with regional specialization in the human intrinsic/default network.
    Goldberg I, Ullman S, Malach R.

    Department of Neurology, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, 6 Weizmann Street, Tel-Aviv 64239, Israel.

    Recently, we proposed a fundamental subdivision of the human cortex into two complementary networks-an “extrinsic” one which deals with the external environment, and an “intrinsic” one which largely overlaps with the “default mode” system, and deals with internally oriented and endogenous mental processes. Here we tested this hypothesis by contrasting decision making under external and internally-derived conditions. Subjects were presented with an external cue, and were required to either follow an external instruction (“determined” condition) or to ignore it and follow a voluntary decision process (“free-will” condition). Our results show that a well defined component of the intrinsic system-the right inferior parietal cortex-was preferentially activated during the “free-will” condition. Importantly, this activity was significantly higher than the base-line resting state. The results support a self-related role for the intrinsic system and provide clear evidence for both hemispheric and regional specialization in the human intrinsic system.

  50. “Who does then?”

    No one, it’s a natural process. It’s not like everything just has to be under someone’s control.

    (I admit, of course, that there are indirect methods we have for deliberately altering our beliefs. I just insist that we have no direct control)

    “Even if you consider beliefs to be a purely biochemical reaction to external stimuli, you can’t understand all the variables that went into that reaction and therefore have no way to predict what circumstances could cause a repeat reaction. Its biological free will.”

    Even if I accept for the sake of argument that the psychological processes that produce our beliefs are impossible to fully predict, it doesn’t follow that our beliefs are a matter of free will. After all, the weather might be impossible to fully predict, but the weather isn’t a matter of free will. A wave function collapse might be impossible to fully predict, but that’s not a matter of free will.

    I mean, some people think unpredictability is a necessary condition for free will, but it’s just false to say that unpredictability is a sufficient condition for free will.

  51. Ron Bailey,

    In other words, are we talking about some version of compatibalism, incompatabilism, etc. here?

  52. “Without free will the concept of deterrence is meaningless, because you can’t deter the inevitable”

    Sure, but the social sanctions in place might be one of the factors that determines whether someone does X or Y. If you accept determinism, after all, you accept that there is a causal chain of events leading to and determining all subsequent events. And the systems of punishment in place in society might well be part of that causal chain determining subsequent events.

    “‘some sort of deliberate control’ Also known as free will.”

    Right, that was my point. Am I missing something?

    “This requires that your will be allowable as a potential first cause, no?”

    No, I don’t think any compatibilist would say that the human will is somehow located outside the deterministic system governing the natural world.

  53. robc,

    Just for the record.

    You should realize that any quoting of Rush lyrics is an automatic thread loser…unless done as satire.

    When paired with CS Lewis, I just get an image of a guy in his mom’s basement with his bong resting on a copy of Atlas Shrugged, a 2112 album cover covered with stems and seeds from some Mexican skunk weed, walls covered with his own artwork, rendered in magic markers and ball point and featuring chimera fantasy babes…

    Not that CS Lewis hasn’t written some very worthy stuff. It’s just the pairing with Rush that makes me think of naive stonerisms…

    “This book dude, he’s got it all figured out…dude, see Aslan is sacrificing himself for our sins.”

  54. It seems to me like the argument on free will is a rather pointless one. While it may be true that a perfect knowledge of past and present would give you a completely knowledge of the future, this isn’t possible save for some imaginary omniscient being.

    I’m not well-versed in physics enough to properly explain it, but you run into even bigger problems at the subatomic level, where any knowledge of a particles positions beyond the probability of a given location is, I’m pretty sure, not physically possible.

    Free will is an illusion, but it’s damn convincing and I believe it’s one we’ll never shake off.

  55. I predict quantum-wave decoherence and metaphysics discussions before the 50th post!

    Would they have shown up if you hadn’t mentioned them?

  56. When the experimental data convinces us that free will doesn’t exist, will our conviction have been freely made or just one more preordained event? If the latter, will the supposedly underlying truth of the claim have been relevant at all and, if so, will that, too, have necessarily been so or merely a happy coincidence?

  57. It depends on how narrowly you define free will to say that unpredictability isn’t sufficient to prove its existence.

    In any case, what is the practical asset in the assertion that free will doesn’t exist if you know that perfect understanding is well beyond our grasp and that you’ll always need a term to describe a decision made by someone that you can’t fully explain or anticipate.

  58. Dave2,

    No, I don’t think any compatibilist would say that the human will is somehow located outside the deterministic system governing the natural world.

    Then if the will (decision) to do something is determined by something prior to that decision, it is not free will, but simply the illusion of free will. Your choice is either free (as a first cause of a causal chain) or determined and not under your control (i.e., not free).

    Otherwise you have defined away the concept of free will and are talking about something else.

    None of this requires that the human will be outside the natural system, it just says that the natural system includes subsystems which are not deterministic. The grounding problem looms large.

  59. D.A. Ridgely,

    At this point we should mention the well-worn update of Descartes’ demon – we’re all part of a computer simulation.

  60. L_I_T: Ascribing free will is a lot more than ascribing practical unpredictability. Heck, it’s a lot more than ascribing real, deep unpredictability. Free will is supposed to be some sort of deliberate control over our actions that makes it appropriate to hold us responsible for our actions. If you just focus on matters of predictability, you’re leaving out this important ‘up to us’ dimension of free will (which is arguably the defining characteristic of free will). Predictability seems like a side issue.

  61. Neu Mejican, you’re just begging the question against the compatibilist. If you think determinism is incompatible with free will, then give some support. Don’t just assume the incompatibility when that’s precisely what’s at issue.

  62. Is the concept of time the real reason for the illusion of free will?

    If the temporal dimension is static, then causal chains are equivalent to spatial extension….

  63. “The possibility of punishment acts as a deterrent in even a completely deterministic world.”

    Either you don’t mean “completely deterministic,” or this makes no sense. After all, what is free will but the possibility of doing A instead of B for whatever reason? Look at our overcrowded prisons. Obviously, many people commit crime in spite of the possibility of punishment, and many don’t in spite of the possibility of reward. If the possibility of punishment/reward affects the outcome, then it is a choice, and you’ve already obliterated a “completely deterministic” world.

  64. Dave2,

    Indeed, a lack of predictability (by humans) would be compatable with determinism.

  65. Dave2,

    I thought I was giving support.

    Why don’t you give some support for the compatibilist position that goes beyond saying that freewill and determinism are compatible?

    As you have described it, the compatibilist position is that everything is determined except for the things that aren’t. I would need something more to work with to refute that claim.

  66. Without free will the concept of deterrence is meaningless, because you can’t deter the inevitable.

    Not at all. Deterrence is easily produced/explained by Skinnerian behavior modification. No free will necessary, just a meat computer that factors in likely unpleasant consequences of behavior.

    “Lack of free will” doesn’t equal “inevitable”. It just means that you respond to your environment in rigidly programmed ways. Change that environment, and your behavior will change. An anti-crime program is an exercise in changing the environment in order to change behavior. Collective punishment is a change the environment that is consistent with an anti-crime program premised solely on retribution and deterrence.

  67. “Either you don’t mean “completely deterministic,” or this makes no sense. After all, what is free will but the possibility of doing A instead of B for whatever reason? Look at our overcrowded prisons. Obviously, many people commit crime in spite of the possibility of punishment, and many don’t in spite of the possibility of reward. If the possibility of punishment/reward affects the outcome, then it is a choice, and you’ve already obliterated a “completely deterministic” world.”

    Okay, I’ll roll with your assumption that determinism is incompatible with free will. But why think that if punishment/rewards make a difference, then it’s a matter of choice and free will? Why can’t punishment/rewards make a difference in the same way that every factor in a deterministic system makes a difference? I mean, the mass of a body makes a difference as to how other bodies will react to it, but that’s not a matter of free will. Why can’t social systems make a difference to how human organisms react without getting free will involved?

  68. But just like Bailey, my initial reaction was to question why free will – or a lack thereof – has any bearing whatsoever on our justice system. Indeed, a deterministic world might INCREASE the perceived effectiveness of deterrence via criminal punishment.

    If there is no free will, then you did not choose to type what you typed.

    If there is no free will, then concepts like good and evil become meaningless.

  69. Dave2,

    Predictability is the only practical measure of free will, which is why I’m using it.

    …and regardless of whether its biochemistry or some supernatural soul that allows us to make decisions, the decision making is still “up to us”. Understanding reasons for making certain decisions may help create a more useful deterrant system, but to argue that someone’s biochemistry relieves that person of the ability to personally make decisions through free will or whatever you wish to call it.

  70. If there is no free will, then you did not choose to type what you typed.

    If there is no free will, then concepts like good and evil become meaningless.

    No and no

  71. If a defendant pleads “not guilty” on the grounds that “my amygdala made me do it,” how can we justify punishing him for something over which he had no control?

  72. Neu Mejican,

    No, if you’re a compatibilist determinist, you think that all events are causally determined. Everything. No exceptions. Every event is necessitated by the laws of nature together with previous states of the universe.

    But since free will is vaguely understood as the capacity for some sort of deliberate control over one’s actions, and since that vague characterization says precisely nothing about causal determinism, it’s still an open question whether free will could exist in a fully deterministic universe. Incompatibilists are free to spell out a more detailed conception of free will and then try to demonstrate that it’s incompatible with causal determinism. But until that’s done, we have no reason for thinking there’s any incompatibility.

  73. No and no

    So what causes us to “believe” in good and evil?

  74. If we abandon the idea of free will, my pituitary gland made me do it isn’t a defense anymore; its just an explanation.

    And then of course judges can then say that their pituitary glands make them punish people for acts that are not their fault.

  75. L_I_T: If you’re switching to a predictability-focused conception of free will simply because it’s easier to work with, you’re still guilty of changing the subject. I could switch to a ‘pair of pants’ conception of God because it’s easier to work with, but then I’m not exactly engaging the central questions about God.

  76. Lost In Translation,

    Though I am hardly the first person to point this out, I will note that the fact that our brains can be damaged and that this can lead to dramatic changes in behavior says something about the nature of “free will” to me. Now I suppose one could argue that a “normal,” non-damaged brain has “free will,” but I don’t know if I find that particularly convincing.

  77. Lost In Translation,

    Of course I guess my statement is completely discounting any dualist notions.

  78. Punishing the innocent as an objective lesson teaches the guilty party the lesson: don’t get caught.

  79. Neu Mejican,

    This book dude, he’s got it all figured out…dude, see Aslan is sacrificing himself for our sins.

    Nah, with Lewis Im more of a fan of his non-fiction and fiction like The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces. Although, I am looking forward to seeing Prince Caspian in April.

    I did set a copy of The Fountainhead on top of my Bible the other day. I wondered which would burst into flames.

    Also not a stoner. Ive never toughed the stuff.

  80. By “April” I meant “May”. Just a typo, nothing to see here.

  81. Nick, I agree with most of what you say except for “Imprisonment and the death penalty don’t deter murder, or there wouldn’t be so many.”

    While imprisonment/punishment may not completely stop murders, it certainly discourages it. I mean, isnt that the conclusion of the experiments cited in the article? that people were more likely to cheat if they knew/thought they wouldnt get caught/punished?
    I can tell you that crime/murder has significantly increased where I live since the current governement has decided to turn a blind eye. It is quite possible to get away with murder here.
    Of course, just because it is possible to commit crimes with a small probability of getting caught doesnt automatically make me go out and do it.

  82. Michael Ejercito,

    In the absence of supernatural authority, good and evil become ethical rather than moral concepts. Either your ethics lead you treat other people as you would or would not be by them or they don’t.

    Voluntary commitment to positive (i.e. non-suffering producing) group ethics (often, but erroneously called morals) determines good and evil.

    And for the cheap seats: It matters more how you treat each other than rather you follow the rules of a (possibly imaginary) God whose mind you cannot know.

  83. If there is no free will, then the idea of punishment has no merit. The agents of the justice system would simply be engaging in determined behavior which is triggered by an event created by determined behavior.

    If such punishment is performed to deter such acts by others, then we are expecting them to choose not to engage in those acts based upon the expectation of getting caught, or to engage in them if they expect they can get away with it.

    If all this was ‘determined’, then we would have no cause to ever think about or discuss such matters.

  84. Dave2,

    some sort of deliberate control over one’s actions, and since that vague characterization says precisely nothing about causal determinism

    Introducing “vague” into the argument means that the compatibilist determinists are not even attempting to put together an argument.

    If there is a sufficient conceptual distance between “deliberate control” and “causal determinism” to say that something else caused my deliberate decision then you are talking gibberish. The fact that language allows for concepts to be characterized with a variety of terms does not make those concepts vague. Control implies that you can determine between choices. Deliberate control = causal determinism. That means the agent with deliberate control has free will and their deliberate decisions are not entirely determined by something outside themselves (as much influence as the environment has on their decisions, if they have control, their actions are not entirely determined by any force outside themselves).

    Compatibilist determinist arguments need to begin with some demonstration of how two incompatible concepts can live comfortably next to each other.

    They are making the extraordinary claim. The burden of proof is on them, not the standard assumptions.

  85. “Though I am hardly the first person to point this out, I will note that the fact that our brains can be damaged and that this can lead to dramatic changes in behavior says something about the nature of “free will” to me”

    Hormones affect the brain, so does this mean I am absolved of any wrongdoing while I’m PMSing? I so, woohoo!! (my husband will be pissed).

  86. As for the issue of punishment, it’s all in how you view the criminal justice system. My conception is that it exists to remove people dangerous or destructive to other people and property. If you hurt someone because you just felt like doing or it because of a chemical imbalance or a brain injury, it’s all the same to me. You still get removed from a society you are trying to harm.

    As for punishment, I’m a fan of Conventry.

  87. Dave2,

    FWIW, the problem with the compatibilist determinist position is the belief in determinism, an outdated clock-work view of the laws of nature.

    If the universe is a single determined causal chain, there is no free will.

    If it is a dynamic probabilist system there can be many overlapping causal chains…allowing for free will to exist in sufficiently complex agents.

  88. Anyway, so much for our monthly debate on the concept of free will. 🙂

  89. Neu Mejican,

    I think you’re misunderstanding some key terms. I take it you’re an incompatibilist: you think that causal determinism is incompatible with free will. But you write: “Control implies that you can determine between choices. Deliberate control = causal determinism.”

    In any case, it’s not true that compatibilist determinists (so-called “soft determinists”) fail to give a more detailed account of free will. Plenty of them do. Harry Frankfurt, John Martin Fischer, Susan Wolf, Daniel Dennett, etc. The point is just that the everyday notion of free will is, it seems, not detailed enough to run into conflict with causal determinism. Given this, the assumption that free will is incompatible with causal determinism should be set aside, at least temporarily. That is, at least until incompatibilists provide arguments for incompatibilism (and they do: Peter van Inwagen, most famously).

    You hint at an argument when you say that free will requires that one’s decisions not be ultimately determined by something outside oneself. But that’s clearly a question-begging assumption.

  90. Neu Mejican,

    Even if the clockwork universe has been debunked by quantum mechanics, that’s not of any obvious relevance to free will. After all, if deterministic processes are problematic for free will, random processes are just as bad: you could hardly hold someone responsible for a decision produced by a random quantum event. This point goes back at least to Hume: even if the universe is indeterministic, that in itself doesn’t solve the problem of free will.

  91. Dave2,

    It is clearly not the case that I am confused about the terminology.

    Although I may be guilty of not communicating effectively with you.

    If the “everyday notion of free will” is not sufficiently well defined to create problems, then it is also not sufficiently well defined to be compatible with anything in a meaningful sense.

  92. When you write “Deliberate control = causal determinism” despite being an incompatibilist, I think you’ve misunderstood something.

    So maybe it’s not sufficiently well-defined. I never said we should sign on to compatibilism. Just that we should set aside incompatibilism pending further investigation.

  93. I am. There I did it. I used my ego. ffs people…

  94. I think that the concept of free will is a lot less interesting than most people want it to be. Free will vs. determinism is a false dichotomy. I have free will because if I decide to do something (I will it, if you will), then as long as I am not physically constrained from doing it, I will do it. What else can free will be? Decisions do not just come from nowhere. My choice to do or not to do something doesn’t magically appear out of the spirit realm, it is the result of what is already in my mind and my experience. Free will in this sense is perfectly compatible with a completely deterministic world.

  95. Something, I don’t know what, myseriously forced me to post this. Fate, kismet, quatum physics, or Satan.

    Or I just chose to.

  96. Though I am hardly the first person to point this out, I will note that the fact that our brains can be damaged and that this can lead to dramatic changes in behavior says something about the nature of “free will” to me.

    It doesn’t say much to me. A damaged brain can just be exercising free will in a different way.

  97. As the brain sciences advance, the space for free will shrinks. Many philosophers, legal analysts, and regular people worry these findings will undercut our moral and legal systems that rely on notions of personal responsibility.

    Science is only confirming what i have always known to be true….that i am the only being in the universe with free will and all of you are drones.

    Now as the only being with free will I command all you drones to stop regulating and taxing me!

  98. R.C. Dean,

    Sorry, but could you flesh that out a bit? If our behavior changes due to an injury to the brain how exactly is that an example of exercising free will in a different fashion? It seems to me that it is a manifestation of a change in “programming.”

  99. This illustrates the fact that there is more than a little truth to H.L. Mencken’s observation that “conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking.

    What a whole bunch of crap…of course there is someone watching when you do something wrong….you are watching yourself.

  100. Something, I don’t know what, myseriously forced me to post this. Fate, kismet, quatum physics, or Satan.

    Everything is happening as it is supposed to….

  101. we should set aside incompatibilism pending further investigation

    That’s a cop out.

    re: Deliberate control = causal determinism

    I am working with the semantic components of the terms here.

    Deliberate aligns with determine.
    while control aligns with cause.

    The debate is about where the control lies…is it in the individual or not.

    The answer the compatibilist determinists (softies?) want to make is “sorta?” Not really a useful position unless you take the next step and explain the details of how the will is or is not constrained.

    The everyday notion of free will is that an agent can be the first cause of a specific class of events, their own actions…that the agent can determine/control whether or not the action will occur. In the everyday notion of determinism, the individual does not determine if the action will or will not occur.

    An uninteresting version of determinism simple says that all things have causes in the previous history of the world and that includes the choices that people make (c.f., Zeb’s comment above which limits determinism to things that physically restrain you-which assumes that thoughts/decisions/brain processes are not physical?).

  102. Sorry, but could you flesh that out a bit?

    Sure.

    (1) Your brain is different from mine. You act differently than I do. That doesn’t cast any doubt on the existence of free will.

    (2) Your brain is different now than it was when you were a kid. You act differently now than you did then. That doesn’t cast any doubt on the existence of free will.

    (3) Your brain will be different in 40 years than it is now because of natural aging processes. You will very likely act differently then than you do now. That doesn’t, etc.

    (4) Lance Armstrong had some pretty major brain surgery. His brain is different now, and he became a much better cyclist after the surgery. How does that cast any doubt, etc.

    IOW, I don’t see how Different Brain + Different Behavior = No Free Will.

  103. R.C. Dean,

    Sorry, but all those appear to be simple restatements of your claim.

  104. R.C. Dean,

    In other words, I don’t see where you explaining how a change in brain state that changes behavior – specifically an injury – doesn’t undermine the concept of free will?

  105. One issue that people here have not brought up (that I have noticed at least) is that of what one might call “weak free will.” Where “free will” might exist but is often or most of the time wiped out by various determinate forces.

  106. Just curious… (I have yet to run across a satisfactory explanation of free will or no free will myself, number one being an adequate definition of what free will actually is)

    How do both sides of this argument explain creating something new? IE, creating music, literature, paintings.

    As a computer programmer with some background in artificial intelligence, there’s no way a computer could do these things (at least at the moment) beyond something like stringing random musical notes together & then checking whether that sequence sounds “good” or not, and “good” would have to be defined by humans anyways.

    Maybe I’m completely off base — but I tend to look at those sorts of things as acts of free will.

  107. Calidore,

    I think Dave2’s soft determinism is equivalent to what you are calling weak determinism. But he hasn’t been too willing to clarify, preferring, it seems, to leave it up to further investigation.

    The crux of the issue, imho, is the grounding problem. If we can’t start new causal chains, or modify the course of existing causal chains, then we don’t have free will. If we can, then we can discuss the degree of control that we might have (how strong our free will is).

    I think we do have free will, but that it is constrained by many factors, so a weak free will concept seems most likely to be the actual case.

  108. This is a very interesting topic for me. Thanks for posting it, Ron.

    I mean I know it was your fate to post it and that there was nothing literally in your control that you could do about it, or for that matter anything else that you do, but it was my fate that I felt like thanking you for it.

    What I mean to say is that all of the particles that are collectively vaguely known as me had reached a state from their previous historical interactions with other particles that I will vaguely call the rest of the universe where my particles’ combined interaction over a period of time is something that I label “saying thanks”.

    I suppose a vague collection of particles could say that my vague collection of particles chose to say thanks. But if so, that other vague collection would have been fated to be wrong.

  109. I don’t see where you explaining how a change in brain state that changes behavior – specifically an injury – doesn’t undermine the concept of free will?

    Just because a mind reacts in part due to the internal configuration of its parts, does not mean that it is not choosing between options. A brain injury might remove free will, but the fact that a change in brain state results in a different choice does not, as far as I can see, have any bearing on the existence of free will.

  110. This point goes back at least to Hume: even if the universe is indeterministic, that in itself doesn’t solve the problem of free will.

    No, but it opens up a potential path/lever for choice. If you think of existence as a static 4-D space with no probabilities (no flow of time), there is no room for free will. In a world of probability rather than static determinacy there is the possibility of choice…whether that is through some multi-verse interpretation, or some other mechanism.

    This makes me think of Penrose and maybe Wolfram…

    http://psyche.csse.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-2-23-penrose.html

    Something about the limits of computation and complexity.

  111. Calidore, if you are speaking of significant brain injury, I can see where it may change a person into someone they weren’t, but they will still have the capacity to act on will or whim. Unless they’re in a vegetative coma. Their actions may be entirely irrational or irritating to those around them, but it is still an act of free will.

    My grandmother made a conscious decision to make the soup in a Tupperware bowl. That wasn’t random synapses firing, nor was it a sound decision, but it was her decision nonetheless.

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