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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sean Carroll dobs me in - a little bit about fate and free will

Some time back now, I promised a further and better post on free will - having discussed at considerable length what people mean by the expression and whether the folk even have a coherent concept of free will. I did say that I'd set out my position, but since then I've come to have doubts as to how easy or helpful that would be. Oh well, some of it follows in this post.

It currently seems as if half of the blogosphere, or at least half of the little corner that I tend to live in, is devoted to this issue. I suppose I could ignore that, except that Sean Carroll has reminded everyone of my promise in a post that I think is well worth reading. Sean has dobbed me in (and he so owes me a beer).

This is still not a post in which I set out a full position on fate, free will, determinism, etc. I've come to wonder whether I can say anything very useful at less than the length of a book. The issues are very confused; I'm not sure that the folk have coherent concepts of any of these things; theologians often seem to be all over the place in their concepts; and the concepts used by philosophers are highly contentious, even if they are sometimes more coherent. Still, I'll sketch a little bit of my thinking.

I've yet to see a claim that we possess incompatibilist free will that makes much sense to me: when you dig into the explanations of how it is supposed to work they become very mysterious. We discussed this late last year, when I got into an interesting debate with Neil Levy, a philosopher who  specialises in this area (and took me to task for using the phrase "contra-causal free will", which he dislikes and considers inaccurate).

On the other hand, I can never see the point of simply insisting that we don't have free will. Unless it is explained carefully it sounds like a claim that we are at the mercy of Fate (however understood). I.e., it sounds as if what is being proposed is a fatalism of the kind that says I will die at the same age irrespective of whether I eat healthily or not, and of all my other decisions. That, of course, is not true: there may (depending on such things as your theory of the nature of time) be a fact as to when I will die, but the event of my death at time T will be causally dependent on, among other things, decisions that I make now, such as my decision to eat a certain kind of diet.

This debate goes back to antiquity. The Stoics discussed what was known as the Lazy Argument for fatalism. The Lazy Argument suggests that it is pointless to take any action. For example, if I am ill it is pointless to call a doctor. Why? Well, if I am fated to recover, then I will do so (whether or not I call the doctor). If I am fated not to recover, then I will not recover (whether or not I call the doctor). Because there is some fact as to whether or not I will recover, it makes no difference whether I call the doctor or not. The same reasoning applies to any action.

The Stoic Chrysippus responded to this by arguing that events can be "co-fated": one co-fated event (or, we would say, simply one event that will take place) can stand in a causal relationship to another. I may be "fated" to recover from my illness (i.e. the fact is that this will happen), but I am not fated to do so whether or not I call a doctor. My recovery from the illness, even if "fated" in the sense that it will happen, may stand in a causal relationship to my decision to call the doctor.

It's better not to talk about Fate at all, but simply to say that there may be facts about what events will take place in the future. Nonetheless, the Stoics were right that the existence of such facts does not change what we observe every day: namely, that our decisions can have causal efficacy. Our deliberations and their outcomes in choices and subsequent actions can and often do have a role in bringing about whatever events later take place.

Thus the Stoics developed a view that would now be called compatibilism. But note that they were not trying to deny that our actions are part of the overall causal order. They were opposing a doctrine that was popular at the time, and which has continued to be popular in much religious and folk thinking about the future, i.e. the sort of fatalistic doctrine exemplified in the Lazy Argument.

Sometimes people who claim that we don't have free will then go on to say that this knowledge should affect the personal and political choices we make, such as what kind of penalties we impose for crimes. But note what is being said here: it is assumed that we are able to make decisions about these things and that these decisions will play a causal role in what actually ends up happening.

For example, the penalties for crimes that will be on the statute books in Illinois in 2050 will depend on various decisions by human beings; they won't take a particular fated form, irrespective of what decisions we make. Even in the process of talking about why we should say that people don't have free will, we assume that fatalism is false. Our very decisions to use one form of language rather than another are assumed to have some causal efficacy.

I do get that when contemporary philosophers and scientists talk about people not having free will they usually have in mind the claim that we never step out of the causal order of nature, rather than the claim that fatalism is true. But so what? Like Chrysippus (and David Hume and Daniel Dennett, and most contemporary philosophers) I agree that we never step out of the causal order of nature. We are part of it. The fact remains that we often make decisions and our decisions can be efficacious. When we make decisions, that process is itself part of the causal order of nature. What else could it be? Try to imagine a coherent alternative.

There's much more to be said here. To be honest, I'm not particularly interested in using the language of free will. Such language really only comes up for me when I get into debates about theodicy, in which religious apologists often claim that we have a mysterious ability to make decisions in a way that lets God off the hook for the negative consequences of our actions. But there's no evidence that we possess any such ability. Indeed, I don't believe that any plausible account of what this ability would be like has ever been given. The concept of "free will" in this sense ends up being something spooky and probably incoherent.

But still, we are at least sometimes (even often) able to make decisions that are causally related to future events such as our own future health and how long we live, not to mention political outcomes such as what parties are elected to office, what penal approaches are adopted in various jurisdictions, what media ownership restrictions are put in place, and so on. Some of our decisions and consequent actions can be better than others in whatever plausible sense of "better" you like.

The future comes about through naturalistic processes, but those processes include our deliberations and decisions, and the actions that they lead us to. As the Stoics argued in the face of popular kinds of fatalistic thinking, the future comes about partly as a result of human choice.


Richard Wein said...

"To be honest, I'm not particularly interested in using the language of free will."

I've come round to that position too. In so far as the term has any meaning, it seems to mean different things to different people. Any question worth addressing can probably be addressed better in other terms.

The core of Sean Carroll's argument seems to be this:

“We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients.”

But then he fails to give any idea of how a description might benefit from incorporating that phrase, or any example of one that does so.

Mathew Varidel said...

I agree with you that our actions have consequences. In that sense, I might be considered a compatabilist (so would Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, I presume).

I suppose the question is when you say that "we are at least sometimes (even often) able to make decisions," what do you mean by that, if not that we are stepping outside of the laws of physics, chemistry, etc.? What makes you think that "we" are in any way controlling these decisions?

I think that you'll agree that "we" don't have control over this. I suppose I just get confused when people in these conversations start saying things like the quote above. I don't know what you mean when you say something like that - it appears to be begging the question.

Sean Carroll said...

If I had kept on writing about free will rather than bringing that already-too-long blog post to an end, I would have highlighted the crucial difference between past and future that persists in a deterministic universe. Namely, while there might be a unique future (putting aside quantum indeterminacy), there is not a simple future boundary condition as there is for the past. In other words, even if there is predestination there is not an practically accessible sense of prediction. That's why talking about free will is even plausible (although I agree that it's kind of optional).

Nevertheless, I accept the future boundary condition that I owe you a beer as a reasonable limitation on my freedom of action.

Verbose Stoic said...

Well, the thing is that the Stoics managed their response by insisting that your internal mental state is totally under your control, and is the only thing that is. Determinist positions like Jerry Coyne's insist that that isn't the case, and that all mental activities are just as determined by the physical world as all physical ones. You can't be said to decide to go to the doctor if decisions are just mechanistic steps determined by genetics and environment.

I think that Carroll's position is like Dennett's and aims at the idea that deciding is in and of itself a physical process. Thus, it works like all other physical processes, but that doesn't make it any less choosing or deciding. In fact, that's just what choosing and deciding are: this physical but efficacious process that can weigh options or, as Dennett likes to say, can allow us to let our ideas die in our stead. It'd be similar to the choices a computer program makes, although more complicated.

The issue with compatibilist positions, though, is that we're free to wonder if that sort of choice is enough to get responsibility. The Stoics had a far stronger notion of choice -- even in their strongly determined mindset -- than that, and that one is still vulnerable to the objections.

I guess the underlying question is: if I'm fated to recover, am I also fated to call the doctor? Determinists like Coyne, I think, say "Yes". Libertarians say "No". Compatibilists say "Yes and no". And that's why the compatibilist positions are so hard to justify [grin].

Russell Blackford said...

The thing is, we experience making decisions all the time (this is @Mathew). Why would we think it requires stepping out of the causal order? Even if I could step outside the laws of physics, how is it coherent to imagine that I'd be stepping outside of my own desires, values, and beliefs? As it happens, these are inscribed in my brain, which is physical. But even if I was made of some kind of non-physical stuff I'd still have a psychological structure of some kind, and my decisions would still be controlled by this. Or if not, how would they be my decisions, not just things that happened to me.

Note that Chrysippus didn't have to rely on anything spooky to answer the Lazy Argument. All he relies on is the idea that events can be co-fated (there may be facts about what events will happen, but the events are causally connected) and the idea that events take place via us which includes such things as our beliefs and desires. Whatever else the Stoics thought, they had an answer to the Lazy Argument that didn't depend on a lot of contentious moral psychology, and which therefore we can adopt even if we use, say, a Humean moral psychology.

But this sounds obscure. In fact, it's really not that hard, as Chrysippus showed in antiquity. It only gets hard - and demands an entire book to sort it all out - because there are so many layers of verbal and metaphysical confusion to clear away.

Russell Blackford said...

But yeah, I do think that any question worth addressing can be addressed without using the expression free will - unless, perhaps, you're deep in an argument about theodicy and you need to bracket off terminological issues.

When involved in an argument like that, it's worthwhile pointing out that no capacities that we actually have and that may be worth calling free will are of a kind that could let God off the hook. Conversely, God could give the beings he creates free will in any sense that is worthwhile and coherent, while still ensuring that they freely choose the good, by any plausible definition of what counts as the good.

Alex said...

I'm with Carroll on this one; predetermination through the natural order, but not one that is accessible to anyone (and that is where theologians and religious people stray off in the wrong direction). The future is determined *and* completely unknown and unpredictable in all but trivial means.

Also, you make good points, and I was with you until: "The fact remains that we often make decisions and our decisions can be efficacious."

That is a statement you haven't defended. How do you know that you make decisions, and simply not only get the feeling you've made them? How is this a fact?

We're bound to the casualties of the natural order, but there is nothing in it that says that your thoughts about thinking you're making actual decisions aren't part of it too, unless you want to traverse dualism?

This is why some of us grasp onto quantum uncertainties for dear life, and hope that their randomness is true and is what drives a "fake" determinism. It still doesn't mean we've got free will, mind you, that we are somehow detached from the natural order, and as such I agree, too, that the language of "free will" is meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Those who uphold "determinism" don't seem to carry its implications through. If it negates the concept of "deserving," then it negates the concept of deserving anything. The upholders, however, go only halfway with this negation: They conclude that no one deserves punishment but take for granted that everyone deserves mercy instead. And thus they maintain the concept of "deserving"---albeit a selective one.

Marshall said...

You guys realized you've refuted Descartes, right? "I think, but actually there is no thinking." I guess we have to go back to 1637 and start over? ... would be OK by me.

Russell, what you're saying at the end of your second comment is rather like what Rob Bell (... one of our more visible progressive American Evangelicals ...) is saying in his recent book.

Alex SL said...

This is an excellent take really.

Free will as espoused by mind-body dualists is nonsensical, and it never even gets off the ground if you are a monist, end of story. But then I often read posts by somebody like Jerry Coyne arguing the same way, thinking, "yes, exactly", and then suddenly comes something like (paraphrasing):

"and the non-existence of free will must now inform my position on penalties for crimes; without free will, all criminal must be treated as under the influence/couldn't help it/mentally ill"

and I go excuse me... what did you just say? Did I miss some logical step? How did you get from the non-existence of some magical soul-thingie that would allow us to override chains of causation to a complete abdication of personal responsibility?

Now that you introduced it, this reasoning looks like a corollary of the lazy argument to me.

Russell Blackford said...

Why is the onus on me to prove that we make decisions? It's something we experience doing all the time. Why indulge in some kind of radical scepticism about it? I don't know what motivates this, unless it's the idea that decisions must be something spooky. But why think that?

Richard Wein said...


Yes, if someone else brings "free will" into a discourse we may have no choice but to use that term. But we can still say that bringing in that term wasn't useful, i.e. wasn't conducive to establishing any facts (other than facts about how people use the term "free will").

Alex said...

Hmm, well, one would think in a discussion about free will where decisions have meaning it would be good to make sure that an assumption of decision is actual one rather than the feeling of one? I'm honestly a bit puzzled as to why this would be a point of disagreement?

Richard Wein said...


I think you are associating "decision" with "free will", in such a way that a phenomenon can't correctly be called a "decision" unless there is "free will" involved. The same sort of semantic dispute that we've had here around "free will" then arises around "decision" too. Jerry Coyne takes a similar stance on the word "choice". (Indeed, Jerry has tried to justify this stance by quoting a dictionary definition of "choice" that mentions "free will").

As I see it, we may as well dispense with the term "free will" because that term doesn't have a well-established pre-theoretical (ordinary) sense, and philosophers can't agree on a philosophical sense.

On the other hand, words like "choice" and "decision" have a useful everyday sense, and that sense does not normally express anything about "free will". When a waiter asks whether I've chosen my meal yet, he has no interest in the subject of "free will". It would be absurd to respond, "No, and I never will, because there's no such thing as choice." Nor would I be telling a falsehood if I said, "Yes", even if I don't believe in anything called "free will". I would simply be answering the question as it was meant. All the waiter wants to know is whether I've reached a mental state in which I have an intention to order a specific meal. He doesn't care how I reached that state. And I think that's a pretty good rough definition of having made a "choice" or "decision" in the ordinary sense.

I accept that within the context of a discussion of "free will" (or something in that vicinity), words like "choice" and "decision" will have free-will-related connotations for many people. (I slightly feel such connotations myself in the case of "choice", though not so much with "decision".) But even within that context I don't think those connotations are so general that we should adopt the free-will-related sense over the everyday sense. For me it makes more sense to treat the everyday sense as the norm, and for those who want to use the free-will-related sense to mark the fact that they are using a special sense, e.g. by calling it "freely willed choice" or "strong choice".

Svlad Cjelli said...

I'm bemused by the absurd extent to which "compatibilists" and "determinists" are talking past eachother.
The positions on How The World Works seem identical from here, yet it appears that the C thinks the D talks of contra-causal fate while the D thinks the C talks of contra-causal freedom.

In reality, I've seen almost nothing but agreement about the causal nature of events, and disagreements mostly about the legal system.

The glass is at half of its capacity. There's little point to arguing for it being half full or half empty.

March Hare said...

Russell, the onus is on you because there is no way for us to make a decision without stepping outside of causality, it merely appears like we're making a decision.

When I program a robot to turn left if the pseudo-random number generator in its CPU is odd, right if even and straight on if 0, then it appears to make a decision when it approaches a crossing, but is it? Can we call that a decision?

If we are deterministic (and to all intents and purposes we are) then this is all we do except on a much more complicated pseudo-random number generator program.

Where Dennett, and I dare say you too, try to wriggle out of this is to say we internalise the option, weigh up alternative outcomes and decide on that basis. It looks good, but all you are doing is making the program more complicated, not actually introducing choice. Unless you can somehow show that there is a decision to be made. Which is why I think the burden is on you.

Russell Blackford said...

MH, I don't understand this at all. The robot is not conscious (I assume) so it doesn't make a conscious decision. Nor does it make a decision that is based on anything as complex as the layers of often conflicting desires and beliefs that human beings have (and which are inscribed in our nervous systems).

But it makes a decision of sorts. Once again, you seem to be assuming that making a decision has to be something spooky, but I can't see for the life of me why you'd assume anything like that.

Obviously I make decisions that are far more complex than any decisions that are made by the robot that you described, and they don't involve a random number generator. They involve complex neurophysiological structures that are part of me (this here specimen of Homo sapiens). They are so different along so many dimensions from the simple decisions that the robot makes that they are qualitatively very different, but the differences are pretty well known - there is nothing spooky about them. One decision is made by a very simple non-conscious physical system (the robot) while the other is made by a very complex, conscious physical system (me). But so what?

Really mate, denying or doubting that we make decisions just seems like a desperate move.

Unknown said...

Alexander Johannesen hit the nail on the head, though I disagree about whether future events can be known with a high degree of granularity (I think computers will end up radically changing that).

That decisions themselves are illusory makes perfect sense to me; this is nothing more than an extension of determinism. When you "make" a decision you aren't adding a forked branch to an imaginary causality-tree; rather, you're just traveling down a branch that was already there (indeed, the only one that was there).

The Lazy Argument is a red herring. Actually, the more I think about it, the more it appears to be a simple non sequitur as well.

it sounds as if what is being proposed is a fatalism of the kind that says I will die at the same age irrespective of whether I eat healthily or not, and of all my other decisions.

Yeah, that's a non-sequitur. "The statement 'the future is based on the past' seems to be saying that the future isn't based on the past."

I don't get it.

Yes, decisions are efficacious, and yes, they're based on desires and values... but so what? Why does that even need to be said?

Imagine the most contemplative, studious decision you've ever made — what you ended up deciding was still the only thing you could've chosen... unless you don't think decisions are causally bound.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, it's the thing you did choose. It's perhaps the thing you were always going to choose. But in what sense is it the only thing you could have chosen? You could have chosen differently if you'd wanted to, i.e. if you had a different structure of desires.

Sure, you were going to choose that way, given the desires you actually had, but you can't blame something external, like someone putting a gun at your head, for the decision that you made. You chose precisely because you are the person you are with the psychology you have. Your decision revealed what you are actually like. The fact that your desires, etc., are inscribed in a physical system that is actually you, or part of you, is beside the point: in acting as you did you revealed something about yourself. If you'd been relevant different, you would have chosen differently.

The only sense in which you couldn't have acted otherwise is that you would have done so if you were different. But that's just the point. You weren't different. You've shown us what your values are. If we judge you adversely for acting as you did, we have a reason to do so: your action displayed the real you.

Obviously it won't always be like this because sometimes people act in ways that don't reflect their more stable psychology, e.g. if drugged or if placed in desperate circumstances or if someone actually does have a gun at their heads. But in a large class of cases you act as you did precisely because that's what you are like. There was nothing stopping you acting in a way that expressed that.

March Hare said...

Russell, I was responding to your dismissal of what Alexander had written - it was his comment that was doubting the decision and you said the onus was on him to show we don't make decisions, I'm not sure that's necessarily the case.

If I was going to weigh in on this then I'd go further back than asking for a definition of decision (and evidence we make them) to asking for evidence of conciousness and a more detailed definition of 'me'. That's probably a bit overly-reductionist, but we should get the fundamental concepts cleared up before arguing about emergent ones.

Russell Blackford said...

I think, though, that this shows that much of what is causing problems here actually relates to issues in philosophy of mind and philosophy of personal identity. But the kind of person who wants to say that we don't have free will, based on some concept of universal causation rather than on traditional fatalist concepts, should probably be adopting a materialist theory of mind (or some kind of computationalism or functionalism) and some sort of similarly materialist view of what sort of things human beings are and what sort of identity we have over time.

On that sort of basis, the process whereby a human being makes a decision is a physical process, taking the form mainly of alterations in complex states of her brain. Those processes actually do happen and they have causal efficacy. If anything here is spooky it's not the concept of making a decision but the old philosophy of mind questions about how the system can be conscious and how consciousness fits into the causal picture.

Still, the picture is that the future set of events takes place via me (say) and via my desires, deliberations, decisions, and actions.

Now if someone says to me, "Why did you kill that baby?", it's no use my responding, "I couldn't have acted otherwise." Yes, I could have ... if I'd been a different sort of person with different desires, values, and so on.

I might, of course, say, "I couldn't have acted otherwise given the kind of person I am." But the response to that is, "So you did it because you are the kind of person that you are?" And, yes, that's what I'd be saying. But that's not going to be helpful. My interlocutor is not denying that. In fact that's likely to be his point: I was free to act in a way that revealed what I'm really like, and that's just what I did. In practical situations, that's what we care about.

We let people of the hook - we're less inclined to make adverse judgments about them - if we can be convinced that they're not really like that. They didn't act in a way that reflected their stable desire sets (because of guns at their heads or whatever). In those circumstances we say their will is overborne.

But your will is not overborne merely because you acted in a way that reflects what you are actually like - what your desires and values are, etc. No one could ever use that as an excuse for how they acted.

Tom Clark said...

Since many people do have the intuition that they could have done otherwise in an actual situation as it played out (as opposed to a counterfactual situation, see http://www.naturalism.org/choice_and_creativity.htm#chdo ), they are brought up short when told by philosophers and scientists that no, they were likely fully caused to do what they did. To the extent that their ides of responsibility, credit and blame are wrapped up in the dualistic notion of a self that transcends or evades causation in some respect - a causa sui - those notions and the attitudes and practices they support might change under pressure from science. As Spinoza said about determinism, "This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one." That is, getting rid of the idea of ultimate responsibility, should one have it, might temper one's reactive attitudes.

Various philosophers and scientists have proposed (e.g., David Eagleman in his book Incognito and a recent article in the Atlantic, Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in the widely cited paper "For the law, neuroscience changes nothing, and everything," and Anthony Cashmore writing for the National Academy of sciences, http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm#cashmore ) there might be implications for criminal justice in seeing that we don't have contra-causal (libertarian) free will, namely a move toward consequentialist, as opposed to retributivist justifications for detention and punishment, http://www.naturalism.org/criminal .htm

Russell Blackford said...

Well, certainly some philosophers have tried to defend the idea that when we make decisions we "could have acted otherwise" even with the exact same beliefs and desires and everything else being the same. I don't see how this is coherent as an account free will - after all, my phi-ing rather than psi-ing is now no longer attributable to anything about me. It becomes very mysterious, and I think that people who think in this way are confused. We've all discussed that on some of the other threads.

But that's not to deny that some philosophers do think this way and that perhaps they are trying to capture something that many of the folk think (though I think the folk are actually quite confused in their concepts here, as with much else).

Now, if our lack of this mysterious capacity really does provide us with a reason to have a penal policy based on deterrence rather than retribution, and if you or Jerry or Sam recommend that we all come to this conclusion, that just demonstrates the point that we are capable of deliberating and making a decision that may be causally efficacious in producing, say, policy changes.

Whether the lack of such a capacity really does have that effect is another thing. But I think that the essential purpose of punishments is deterrent in any event. I think that the state exists (mainly) to protect us from harms to our secular interests and that it does so largely by deterring us from certain kinds of conduct. I'm pretty much with Hobbes up to this point. It also follows that I think that many laws would be better struck off the statute books altogether, or at least be replaced by more fine-grained kinds of regulation. All this will be discussed in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

But sure, if someone's pet theory of punishment relies for its justification on a premise about the existence of a capacity to exercise libertarian free will, then that pet theory of punishment should be abandoned. And we are free to abandon it!

Tom Clark said...

Russell, you say "I think that the essential purpose of punishments is deterrent in any event."

As you may know, there's a significant number of criminal justice scholars (at least in the US) who think retribution is the primary purpose of punishment; no forward-looking justifications for inflicting suffering on offenders are needed. This seems implausible to me, as argued at http://www.naturalism.org/morse.htm and http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm#AgainstRetribution What's interesting is that these are naturalist philosophers who don't buy any notion of libertarian free will (LFW), but who still defend a notion of retribution-entailing desert that used to be premised on LFW (and still is by many of the folk).

Unknown said...

Well, it's the thing you did choose. It's perhaps the thing you were always going to choose.

In our universe, it's not "perhaps" the thing you were always going to choose — it surely is the only thing (unless you're positing a causality-breaking libertarian-style free will). There may be other universes with different causal webs and different "yous" caught up differently therein... but so what?

But in what sense is it the only thing you could have chosen? You could have chosen differently if you'd wanted to, i.e. if you had a different structure of desires.

But you don't have a different structure of desires. You have a single set of desires, each facet being a product of your surroundings and physiology. I'm struggling to see what your point is, especially in the last three paragraphs.

Sure, you were going to choose that way, given the desires you actually had, but you can't blame something external, like someone putting a gun at your head, for the decision that you made.

This honestly strikes me as spooky glorification of decision-making. Yes, you can "blame something external" for the decision you made. The mere fact that you were at a juncture requiring a decision requires than an external force existed. Every decision you make has causes that are extrinsic to you. I don't understand what you're trying to say.

I think you're just terribly averse to the notion that decisions are illusory.

The more I ruminate on this, the more beautiful the idea of 'illusory decisions' becomes. I've been watching a really great short video series called "Everything is a Remix" and it's rather poignantly apropos to this train of thought, because "selves" can be thought of as remixes as well. Not only in the physical sense (being remixed atoms and such) but in terms of our very thoughts and personal identities as well...

KR said...

"We" are natural, mechanistic entities, and "decision-making" is one of our functions. In this perfectly materialistic sense, we make decisions.

To define persons and decisions as being outside the "causal order" is to define them out of existence. A rather unhelpful thing to do, given that they can easily be described in solid and coherent terms.

I share Russell's vexation. Anyone who views these concepts in the framework of modern neuroscience shouldn't be getting so tripped up over them. It would be like someone disputing the phenomenon of mental illness on account of demons not existing---as if the phenomenon couldn't be characterized or accounted for without reference to evil spirits. Such a perspective would seem quite antiquated and vacant in a discussion between 21st-century, science-minded intellectuals.

Marshall said...

I agree with you (Russell) that your definition of FW as "the causal efficacy of human decision" (+/-) neatly splits the problem into two parts in a way that allows you to talk about humans as actors, optionally rational, in society. Useful! People like to do that! And if we like, we can talk more about where decisions come from, or not.

But Russell, accepting strong causality and if we are speaking carefully, meaning that in fact "decisions" are epiphenomena arising from the Laws of Physics operating on some initial state; haven't you at the same time dissolved pain & suffering likewise into epiphenomena not worth talking about? And then Theodicy becomes a meaningless question, since "evil" has no remaining referent?

Alex SL said...


not quite sure if you responded to my post, but my rhetorical questions were directed at Jerry Coyne's argumentation, not at yours.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Tom - I guess it depends on what their arguments are. But if their arguments rely on the premise of libertarian free will they won't be sound arguments, right? Kant, for example, also had arguments that the purpose of criminal justice is retributive, but I doubt that anyone would accept them - though I must admit that I had some students who were attracted to them a few years back, to the idea of a balance to be reestablished, etc.

None of which is to deny that the criminal justice system may co-opt our retributive impulses. But if it's going to do that, some sort of story needs to be given as to why that's a useful thing to do.

Jambe, I'm not sure why you say that. You seem to be making some unargued assumptions here. If I do something because it fits my desires in the circumstances in which I find myself, not because, say, someone has a gun at my head, then I can hardly argue that I did it because someone had a gun at my head. I did it because I wanted to do it. It expressed and revealed the kind of person I am. You might be saying that the kind of person I am is ultimately the product of external events, but so what? How else could it be? The fact remains that I acted in accordance with my own deliberations and desires and my action was causally efficacious. And, yes, it's true that we find ourselves in various circumstances that we didn't entirely create. But that's pretty obvious and no one denies it. The question was never about that. The fact remains that you will normally have a range of options to choose from and all the things I said then apply. I see no reason at all to think that the process of making a decision or the decision itself is an illusion. After all, the brain processes actually happen, and your brain is not something external to you; it is (a crucial part of) you. You can say I'm "resistant" to the idea that decisions and decision-making are illusions, but I'm no more "resistant" to that idea than I'm "resistant" to the idea that there's a rhinoceros under my desk or that there's a god in the clouds. I have no good reason to believe any of those things.

Marshall, I'm not following but I'll think further about what you said. Again,you seem to be making some background assumptions that I probably don't share.

KR, right!! You "get it" to use a popular expression these days. ;)

Alex, sorry - I think I may indeed have misunderstood you. I'll go back and have a look.

Later, folks!

KR said...

Russell: KR, right!! You "get it" to use a popular expression these days. ;)


Alex said...

Hmm, I'm getting a bit confused. I can understand what you say that there is no illusion, and perhaps that very word is wrong, perhaps there is a decision but that out of all the options you saw you really could only choose what you chose.

Let's be clear, I reject any form of dualism (which I thought we all agreed on, BTW), and argue from there; there might be those things which we call choices, and maybe there's things called decisions, but if there was ever only going to be one option that would be chosen no matter how many times we play back the tape of time, then the word and concept of "decision" lose all semantic goodness for me.

What is a decision that you didn't choose? Surely there's a mental model of choices in our heads that are compatible with a spooky dualism, that we are somehow in control of our choices, but if we are not in control I will not accept them as "decisions" anymore than I would accept "free will" as a concept, or dualism as true.

Is what you're saying that this thing / word / concept we here (in this discussion) call "decision" (and "choices" by proximity) are not really the same as the "free will" version of that word used in normal conversations, and that we *really* agree that "decision" isn't really a choice but that you still want to use that word for some deterministic process, possibly random (if we're lucky)?

I'm confused.

Lyndon Page said...

I, in the end, am wary of what most people believe about "choice" and "decisions."

I think the phenomenological presentation is something that requires a very serious model and understanding of in order to reject what is the "natural" experience of the making of a decision.

Making things easy and accepting determinism, the individual's consciousness and self-modeling is that there is a choice to be made; e.g., to choose between two options on a menu. The way that this situation is presented to the self is one of contra-causality, it is one of being "forced to be free." That self is going to choose based on desires and reasoning (cost perhaps) and any number of factors. Now, I believe (maybe contra Coyne) that the self is consciously aware of many of the important factors that the self is making the decision on. But our conscious awareness is opaque to underlying brain processes; its opaque to probably how most our desires have been determined by the past or by our genes (and really by some wicked combination thereof); and, most importantly, it is opaque to the totality of the determining structure that is going to cause it to choose in the manner that it does (I am not sure what perfect knowledge of the future and all causal determinants would mean, it seems through some looping process that such an idea would render itself impossible or insane- is that a paradox?).

The gulf between the vast lack of knowledge that one's consciousness has and the necessity for it to choose, is a process that encourages people to believe in a strange conception of free will but also, to me, seems like most individuals conception and definition of "choice" and "decision" is going to line up more with this "self" that is forced to choose in a consciously unconstrained manner (when in fact it is wholly constrained in a very complex way).

It seems like the modeling and knowledge that the brain is physically changing with every thought that you think (I assume), and that some deterministic process that the self cannot know is causing that self to choose in the manner that it does, is a far more difficult thing to convince people of than, say, that the sun is not setting or moving.

Our "experience" of any "decision" being made is actually very problematic. It is one of the things underlying belief in free will and of radically free choice. You can model and make theoretic claims that your "decision" was determined by a multitude of things, but you cannot "experience" the determined structure of that "choice."

All choices are presented to the consciousness as radically free.

Lyndon Page said...

Edit: My last line was a little flawed. This is probably better:

"Most choices to be made by the self are presented to the conscious self as radically free."

I also wanted to say I agree with the take that we should just leave discussion of free will out all together and continue to analyze the self, the brain, decision making processes, etc.

I also agree that humans are powerful "decision" makers, it is what makes us special. Language and consciousness are important in our ability to analyze the world and shape that world and our behaviors to help us flourish; and it is all we need. I just think there are modeling problems and a problem of really understanding and accepting what it is that the self does when it chooses, when it makes decisions.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, Alexander but who is this "we" you are talking about? The language you are using suggests the possibility of something that sits outside of my brain and controls how it functions. But why think anything like that exists? Even if it did, it would have to have some functioning of its own, even if it wasn't physical functioning) and who would control that? If it didn't have a psychological structure of values, desires, etc., plus beliefs, what basis would it have to make choices. And if it had a psychological structure, there would still be some sort of story as to it came to have it - perhaps it sprang into existence with a psychological structure in place, or perhaps it was created with that psychological structure by a god. In any event, it can't have chosen its own psychological structure all the way down.

The better way to think of it is that I am my brain (and the rest of my body). When my brain processes sensory inputs and comes to a conclusions, that just is me making a choice. There's no separate "me" that is being constrained in some way by the functioning of my neurophysiology. I am a physical thing composed, in part, of that neurophysiology.

I do agree, of course, with people who say that I am not, in the process of making a decision, aware of all my own values, proprensities, etc., and their origin. It may not feel as if they don't even have an origin, but of course they do - we are all products of material forces. So yeah, if I think about it naively I might think there's something spooky about it, but when I make a decision it really is just an extremely complex physical system in action. But again, what else could it coherently be?

In the end, the physical system that is me, regardless of whether it has a good conscious model of itself, and regardless of how it originally came into existence, does in fact confront problems such as: "Will I buy this house?" "Will I accept this job offer?" "Will I invite this person to have a cup of coffee with me?" and it typically produces a "solution" to the problem. We do this all the time with less consequential stuff, minute by minute even with trivial things that we have to worry about - "Will I make a cup of coffee or have a glass of wine?" "Will I check my blog now or work on the piece I've been asked to write for Free Inquiry?" "Will I go and buy a chocolate or stick to my diet?" "Will I watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica or continue to do stuff on the computer?" - and we often do so in circumstances where we have real options, plus every opportunity to produce solutions that actually match our desires. And then, as discussed, our solutions lead to results (they are causally efficacious). Nothing stops us choosing one way or another, except what we actually prefer to do.

All of this actually happens. It's not an illusion that it happens.

Again, if I say to someone "I couldn't have acted otherwise," my interlocutor can say to me, "You didn't want to act otherwise. You could have done so if you'd wanted to." There will be cases where that's unfair of course - for some special reason it's legitimate to ask, rhetorically, "What could I do?" - but those are the exceptions. People who insist in all cases that I could not have acted otherwise are using the word "could" in a highly loaded metaphysical sense that doesn't match our ordinary concept of what it is to be able to do something.

Alex said...

Ok, Russel, I suspect we are in violent agreement on some of these things; the concept of decision is part of the deterministic yet unknown (but trivially predictable) process of the universe we're in. However, to again take it back to Mathew Varidel's question, what do you mean "we are at least sometimes (even often) able to make decisions" if it is a deterministic process rather than a free choice? (Perhaps it is redundant to call this deterministic as it couldn't happen any other way, and maybe this is an ontological error on my part?) Or could it?

Anyway, as I think someone else mentioned, yes, the concept of a "decision" for what I argue against (and I suspect the majority of people) think about that concept as a free choice amongst options, and if the tape of time were to replay they might have chosen differently; the infamous folk choice.

Russel: "But again, what else could it coherently be?"

Well, non-deterministic, for one. :) I suspect most of these conversations have been poisoned by dualism for far too long, making our (or, mine) evolutionary language incapable of dealing properly with it. (And the 'we' I refer to here is, of course, me)

As for the rest of this argument, I guess it depends just how far up or down the macro/micro ladder of the physical universe you're willing to let the question of choices go, how much influence over our faculties we let the physical universe have (in argument). I /personally/ don't see any good reason for why the universe - had it started all over again, provided it had a start - wouldn't lead to this exact moment in time when I write these words in a comment on your blog saying these exact words, our thoughts the same way we think them, unless quantum randomness alter paths (and I know that the definition of 'random' is a bit, uh, random at times). We, as supposedly sentient beings, have no say in it, I don't think we have any outside-the-process-of-the-universe choice in the matter, and that the folksy "decision" is an illusion even if your "physical system that is me" observes it and believe you have a choice.

Anyway, I get the feeling we are approaching some fulcrum of this discussion. I don't think we have much choice in the matter. :)

March Hare said...

I have always said that I am my decisions. It was initially a glib comment to get around the troubling issue of self but I am becoming more and more taken with it.

But is there a decision being made? Depends entirely on your perspective.

Internally there certainly appears to be options and a selection of one of the options.

Externally with limited (normal) information there appears to be several options, each of which is possible and one is ultimately chosen.

Externally, with perfect knowledge, there is a single, knowable outcome. In no way is there a decision being made. Referring to internal preferences, volition and desires is simply obfuscating the fact that a system is following knowable, natural laws to reach a conclusion that was predictable before the start.

When I step off a cliff I follow certain laws that mean I fall. There is no decision, no plea to gravity, mass, air resistance or any of the other laws makes it a decision. Likewise, when I choose strawberry ice cream over vanilla there is a set of laws that have been gone through to produce a result.

Just because gravity is well known and the internal laws of the brain (and initial state) is not doesn't change the ultimate process.

In a pragmatic sense we make decisions because there are various outcomes that we choose between. We appear to choose because there is no way to know before the fact what will be chosen. However, in a factual sense there is no choice because there is no way that that system could have had a different outcome given the inputs.

The more I go into this the more I refer back to my previous comment that we need a common understanding of 'decision', 'self', 'consciousness' and a few other terms. All in spite of the fact we, on this thread, agree on what level of free will we have even if we disagree semantically about what 'free' or 'will' actually refer to.

Richard Wein said...


--What is a decision that you didn't choose?--

I think the issues are pretty much the same for the word "choice" as for the word "decision", so I would say that I _did_ choose. When I'm sitting in a restaurant perusing the menu, a choice/decision gets made about what to order. My brain goes from a state in which I have no specific intention to one in which I have an intention to order fish, say. We call that process "making a decision/choice", and I say that this normal usage is not influenced by any considerations of indeterminism. We just aren't interested in that subject the vast majority of the time we use those words. So it's reasonable to say that our use of such language does not normally connote "free will" or indeterminism.

--if there was ever only going to be one option that would be chosen no matter how many times we play back the tape of time, then the word and concept of "decision" lose all semantic goodness for me.--

I notice you used the word "chosen" here when describing a deterministic scenario. But according to you (if I haven't misunderstood) nothing that occurs in a deterministic world can be called "choosing". Since you used that word, it must have had some meaning to you. The evidence of your own usage seems to show that you do find the word "chosen" (and presumably therefore the word "decision") meaningful in a deterministic scenario.

(BTW I'm assuming that there are no significant differences between related words, e.g. that "choice" does not have significantly different connotations from "choose".)

--Is what you're saying that this thing / word / concept we here (in this discussion) call "decision" (and "choices" by proximity) are not really the same as the "free will" version of that word used in normal conversations, and that we *really* agree that "decision" isn't really a choice but that you still want to use that word for some deterministic process, possibly random (if we're lucky)?--

I agree that the events commonly referred to as "decisions" occur by a deterministic process (or perhaps involving quantum randomness) and there is nothing involved that's worth calling "free will". But I say it's quite reasonable to continue referring to such events as "decisions" or "choices", because those words do not normally connote "free will", so our using them does not indicate acceptance of any concept of "free will". I accept that sometimes people use these words in ways that do connote some sense of "free will", and I don't object to you doing so, as long as you make that clear. I in turn will specify that I'm using these words in a way that does not connote "free will", whenever there's liable to be any confusion. I disagree that the "free will" usage is the one used in normal conversations, for the reasons I've given.

I hope that's clearer than my last post!

Unknown said...

Alexander worded my problems much more adroitly and I don't think you provided an adequate answer to them. He is essentially asking whether decisions themselves are ontological "things" or whether they're a sort of necessary mental by-product of being a "me".

I question whether options truly exist at all. If you admit that our physiological decision engines are entirely constrained by causality then it simply must follow that there aren't any "options" from which to "choose" — there was only the one thing you eventually did choose. If indeed we are simply emergent fruits of entropy, the apparent existence of "options" and "choices" must be an illusion of some sort, necessitated by our minds.

Take any example — you're going to buy either an Audi or a BMW. You eventually buy the BMW. If determism is true, you were destined to buy the BMW, and your conception of having the "option" to buy the Audi was merely an illusion based on the happenstance of your life (which lead you to also consider the Audi). In every sense of the world "could" you could not have bought the Audi, because there existed only the one finite universe whose intricate causal web led up to your purchase of the BMW. One can certainly imagine alternate universes where (for instance) an Audi was driven past your house as you were pondering the vehicles, and its beauty changed your mind... but that would not be the universe in which we actually exist.

As you pointed out, this has implications for our conception of self. I think the "remix" idea is pretty handy if one envisions human beings as entropic flowers. We are each loci of pattern-recognition in a tangled net of interaction, and each instance of interaction aggregates to form notions such as "me" and "choice".

and we often do so in circumstances where we have real options, plus every opportunity to produce solutions that actually match our desires

What do you mean by "real options"? It seems to me you're glorifying the word "options" such that it might as well stand in for the phrase "libertarian free will". Again, if causality is followed to its logical end, then options aren't really options. Or are you saying that they actually are?

Sam Harris speaks about this. See this blog post:


Yes, choices, efforts, intentions, reasoning, and other mental processes influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a stream of causes which precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter, but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do—for instance, when going back and forth between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose. There’s a regress here that always ends in darkness. Subjectively, I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are inscrutable to me.

Tom Clark said...

"People who insist in all cases that I could not have acted otherwise are using the word "could" in a highly loaded metaphysical sense that doesn't match our ordinary concept of what it is to be able to do something."

Or, they are simply pointing to the scientifically uncontroversial deterministic nature of human action as a way of debunking the spooky and incoherent idea of contra-causal, libertarian free will. If I'm determined in my choices and behavior, is it the case that I could have done otherwise in an actual situation as it played out? No. See http://www.naturalism.org/choice_and_creativity.htm#chdo

Russell Blackford said...

See, several of you are simply begging the question by inssiting that words like "decision" and "choice" be used in ways that are already metaphysically loaded. As someone said above, it's like insisting that mental illness - or just physical illness - doesn't exist because there are no evil spirits.

Lyndon Page said...

The "choice" that we are talking about here is in the process of a self/brain choosing. For most people, if they are talking about a chess computer choosing a move, they have a different conception of "choice" than if they are talking about their self choosing a move. Though asking someone their take on those two ideas of choice is probably priming them to think of the brain in a more deterministic way to start with.

I think most people are comfortable saying the computer could not have chosen otherwise in that situation. If you ask an individual right after that individual makes a chess move, "Could you have done otherwise?" I think getting such a person to deny they "could have done otherwise" in the strong sense will be difficult. They felt a power about the decision they just made, they rightly feel and postulate they "could have done otherwise" in the "weak sense"; and thus getting them to accept that their decision making process was, in the end, in the same realm of determinism as the computer chess player will be difficult (consciousness may actually take our "decision" making process to a different structure than the computer model, though its assuredly deterministic).

And that just goes back to the conscious subject being forced to choose without understanding many underlying factors or the totality of the causal chain that was insisting in her specific choice.

I do not think that is insisting on a certain metaphysical reading of "choice," but only acknowledging the phenomenology of the individual as they choose and, thus, as they think about and define "choice."

We may need some of that new-fangled experimental philosophy.

Peter said...

I think there are a couple of important points that compatibilists/comapatibilists-in-spirit accept that incompatibilists seem to not address at all: 1)even if the laws of physics + Libertarian free will allowed us to have done otherwise, we wouldn't have done otherwise because we wouldn't have wanted to do otherwise (even if our behavior isn't law-like because of physics, we'd still have some spooky laws governing our psychology). 2) it doesn't matter that much whether the laws of our behavior have a spooky origin or a physical origin.

I've been thinking about three models of behavior:
i)we are *just* sophisticated stimulus-response robots. Put two people in identical situations, and they'll want to behave in exactly the same way. Or maybe there is a complex battery of measurements we can make on an individual, and after that we can predict that person's behavior in any future situation to a reasonable precision.

ii) we are sophisticated stimulus-robots with a huge variation in how we respond to different situations. Precise prediction of an individual's behavior will mostly be futile, but there will be general trends that make sense. Observing the trends of one an ensemble of individuals won't necessarily help predict trends in a particular type of behavior of any other given individual (although some trends might be very widespread among individuals--how people behave under duress, for example--, others won't be--how an individual will react to a book, for example).

iii) we are at the mercy of the random influences of physics. The best model of our behavior is something analogous to Brownian motion, and all variations in our actual behavior are due to something analogous to environmental "temperature". At most, we can each make up different stories about why we did what we did. But we shouldn't take those stories very seriously, and a person's past behavior isn't useful for predicting their future behavior in new situations (at least, person A's past behavior is no more predictive than person B's, or the average of persons {B through ZZ}'s, for predicting A's future behavior, in a situation of a given "temperature".

I think of i) as a version of fatalism, ii) as something like our actual experience, and as something worth calling free will, and iii) as what something like what incompatibilist-determinists seem to think our situation is without free will. I can't see why it particularly matters whether we find ourselves in situation ii) because of spooky reasons or because of an emergent phenomenon of lawful (deterministic or stochastic) physics.

(Hardly anyone ever explicitly talks about iii), but it often looks to me like it's underlying their discussion-maybe seeing it spelled out will help people realize they're assuming something ridiculous?)

Peter said...

Oh, I also want to caricature Alexander's position (because it's a common one, actually maybe it's not a caricature):
Alexander doesn't make decisions, Alexander's brain merely crunches some stimuli and makes Alexander's body do something. Alexander is just along for the ride, and it's unfair to hold him responsible just because his brain was involved.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate your post - it's added some clarity to this topic for me.

We let people of the hook - we're less inclined to make adverse judgments about them - if we can be convinced that they're not really like that. They didn't act in a way that reflected their stable desire sets (because of guns at their heads or whatever). In those circumstances we say their will is overborne.

As Jerry Coyne often brings up, and I agree with him, we also let people off the hook when we (say) realize that their violent tendencies were probably the result of some horrible, violent upbringing. Right? In courts of law, such circumstances attenuate punishment.

Nonetheless, "violent criminal" describes who these people *really* are. It does reflect their stable desire sets.

And yet I still feel inclined to be more compassionate toward them. There but for the grace of God go I, and all that. Do you not feel the same? Do you judge these people just as much as anyone else because they are "really like that"?

Tim Martin

Alex said...

Russel, I'm not sure that last comment was very clarifying for me. Can you explain in no uncertain terms what you mean by "choice"?

Russell Blackford said...

Probably not, Alexander. But I'm not using the word in any metaphysically-laden way. I'm just using it in the ordinary, everyday sense. E.g., I go to a restaurant and look at the menu. I choose one of the options on offer - the steak, or the chicken, or the veal, or the vegetarian quiche, or the stir fry ...

Surely no one is going to tell me that this doesn't happen?

If I choose the steak and someone later remonstrates with me for not choosing the vegetarian quiche, "I couldn't have done otherwise" is not a good answer. Yes I could have. But I didn't want to. That's the way we use these ordinary English words.

I can see why people might not want to use the term "free will" if they think it's a metaphysically-laden term (even though I'm not at all sure that it is), but are we going to get to the point of having an error theory about ordinary English words such as "choice", "decision", "options", etc., in their ordinary English contexts and usages?

Alex said...

Thanks, Russel, things are clearing up, at least the definitions used. No, of course "decision" do happen, there is *a* decision being made that the future depends on, and even if I was a hard determinist I'd still posit that the process of mind make some decision. I just have a problem with it when linked to the discussion on free-will where it is assumed, I admit, in a folksy way, that the decision isn't predetermined. I guess it's just a word we use for a fork in the road, even if the outcome couldn't be any other way. I personally feel this is defining "choice" in a way that clashes with the generic way the word is used, ie. that we exercise some degree of control over the decision. I know that shifts the debate to "control" though, and lands us splat down in duality territory again. Bummer.

I'll have to think about this some more.

Alex said...

Peter, I was with you until the end "unfair to hold him responsible." Is there some specific point you wish to make about responsibilities driving your caricature? Because, as far as I can tell, I haven't even taken the next step yet as to consequences, I'm still on base one trying to figure out the definitions compatibilists make vs. the more folksy use of those words.

Like I've said elsewhere, I think the world has grown too accustomed to duality, so that when (non-dualistic) philosophers come along and talk determinism there's bound to be misunderstandings.

Richard Wein said...

Time for some experimental philosophy. ;-) I'd like to explore the objections to "could have" statements, by giving a list of counterfactual statements, and asking objectors to please identify which ones they think cannot be true in a deterministic universe.

(1) If the house had been hit by lightning, it would have burnt down.
(2) If the house had been hit by lightning, it might have burnt down.
(3) If the house had been hit by lightning, it could have burnt down.
(4) If the state of the atmosphere had been different, what happened to the house could have been different.
(5) If the state of Richard's mind had been different, his actions could have been different.
(6) If the state of Richard's mind had been different, he could have acted differently.
(7) Richard could have acted differently.

Neil said...

"I do get that when contemporary philosophers and scientists talk about people not having free will they usually have in mind the claim that we never step out of the causal order of nature, rather than the claim that fatalism is true."

I'm going to be picky (again). This just isn't true: philosophers do not oppose free will and the causal order. No one argues that we have free will because (or even 'and') we can step out of the causal order. There are some philosophers, going back to Anscombe, who advance noncausal accounts of human action, but does not entail stepping out of the causal order. People who believe in libertarian free will - that we have genuine alternative possibilities - believe that we have this power in virtue of the causal order. Event-causal libertarians think that quantum level indeterminacy can pull this off. Agent-causal libertarians think that there is a kind of causation one relatum of which is an agent. Shoot, some compatibilists believe something like this: Lewis argued that we have a power such that, were we to exercise that power in certain ways, the past would have been different than it was. None of these people oppose being in the causal order with being unfree. No free will sceptic argues that because we are in the causal order we are unfree. Pereboom and Strawson argue that a pincer movement from causal *determinism* and chancy determinism entail absence of free will. I argue that neither causal determinism nor chancy indeterminism are incompatible with free will - but we lack it anyway for independent reasons.

Svlad Cjelli said...

- "It's ice!"

- "Frozen water!"

- "Ice!" DX

- "Frozen water!" DX<

Sorry for being flippant. :P

Russell Blackford said...

Neil, tell Jerry not me. I weas referring to scientists such as Jerry and whatever philosophers he is relying on - and whichever of the people who are supporting him or arguing for hard determinism on this thread have credentials as philosophers.

The point is, these people who are trained in science or philosophy and are arguing her on Jerry's thread for a hard incompatibilist/hard determinist position are, as far as I've seen in the discussions, which I've read a helluva lot of by now, relying on arguments based on determinism. See for yourself in Jerry's most recent post where that's exactly what he does.

Lyndon Page said...


The difference between 6 and 7 is what worries me, mostly from a semantic point, but then certainly as human beings engulf 7 in isolation. If 7 just means that the individual "could have differently" if his "past environment or genes prior to the decision had been different," then 7 is fine. But, since 7 glosses over the more meaty part of 6, the idea that the individual would have done differently if his mind had been different, then 7, to many people, helps reinforce a certain conception of human beings when they state it.

When Russell says "he could have chosen otherwise" on his choice on the menu, he is "glossing" the fact that he could have done so either in the weak sense, that many options were open that (seemingly) could have been taken, or "if his brain state had been different." Russell might never imply that his ability to "do otherwise" could mean something different, but to so many people (for instance the majority of the world who still believe in God or other weird stuff), they may wholly accept that his "could have done otherwise" means more than "could have done otherwise - "if his brain state had been different", and instead, mean "could have done otherwise"- in that exact situation with his exact brain state.

"Could have done otherwise" and "choice" are phrases that imbue ambiguity on the situation, and if we are anywhere around the area of free will, we should use them carefully and problably not slander the other side with using them innapropriately, since large numbers of people have used them and continue to use them in both ways. Any claims to how the words should be used is usually a normative move to help claim one's own view point to be correct, when of course the definitions and connotations of the phrases are various and problematic, such as people's conceptions of "free will" are various and problematic.

Lyndon Page said...

To put my political cards on the table, the "could of done otherwise" of an individual's choice is to obscure the analysis of why that individual made the choice that they did. As far as choosing from a menu goes, it is of little concern, usually, to why we chose the cake instead of the pie, though we may have fun guessing the genealogical roots of our love for cake or evolutionary pressures for cake-loving. And, maybe we should even revel in our own little idiosyncracies.

But, if we are speaking and deciding what to do about a criminal's behavior, the statement "she could have done otherwise," helps ignore, like in Richard's example, WHAT the state of the brain was at the time of choice, and WHY the state was that way. It encourages us to stop analyzing the situation. As someone concerned with behavioralism, social constructionism, discourse theory, evolutionary psychology, etc., I believe that we can start analyzing or at least accepting the multitude of factors that are structuring this individual. To simply say, that this was an expression of this individual's character is to gloss over why it is an expression of this individual's character; for instance, bad neighborhood, broken home, Freudian unconscious structures (if we must), genetic structures, the glorifying of criminal activity, poverty, the totality of this individual's life story, etc.

To say that the individual "could have done otherwise" is to help focus the attention onto the individual instead of the society that is equally responsible for determining this individual and his brain state at the time of the choice, which I take follows from the idea that an "individual is nothing more than the product of the genes and the environment." The "environmental" side is too much in the control of society, of our hands, to not ask how such an environment has failed that individual. The "could of done otherwise" helps create the notion of this autonomous entity that is acting against the world instead of asking deep, complicated (and for now unanswerable) questions about why this individual's mind is the way it is.

Which goes back that we need to set the concept of free will aside, along with many of our other notions about Man, and get on with psychology and analysis of human flourishing in general.

Paul W. said...

This discussion needs an explicit dose of the New (a.k.a. "Causal") Theory of Reference, and Natural Kind Terms.

Some people seem to think that words have strict definitions, and that if the definition is false, the word fails to refer to anything real.

By that standard, water doesn't exist because it turns out not to be an element, and gold doesn't exist because it turns out not to be a compound.

In general, the "definitions" of words are provisional, and are used to establish reference to real things in the world. Actual strict definitions are only possible once you've understood the thing being referred to.

People successfully referred to "water" and "gold" and "life" and "species" for a very long time without knowing the actual definitions of any of those terms in the classical sense.

Same for "choice" and "deciding"---we've been talking about something real, which we've observed and named, and if it turns out to be surprisingly deterministic, that's fine. It is what it turns out to be, just as water is suprisingly compound, gold is surprisingly elemental, life is surprisingly mechanistic, and species are surprisingly mutable.

Supposed "definitions" matter a whole lot less than prototypical examples of the obviously real things we're talking about.

It's funny how many scientists, of all people, miss this utterly basic point, and jump on philosophers who think and talk like scientists about observed things.

Phil Jensen said...

Over at Jerry's place I left a comment along these lines:

Another thing that “people mean by free will” is that people feel the burden of making choices. To put it in sharp terms, we may imagine a smoker who has just quit, and is now “deciding” whether to have a cigarette or not. The fact that free will is an illusion does not change this person’s predicament in any way, right?

Russell Blackford said...

And Neil, you really are being a bit nit-picky here.

I don't think I was misleading anyone when I made that concession to my opponents. The people I've actually been debating are mainly Jerry Coyne (a scientist) and Sam Harris (a scientist and philosopher). But I was also thinking of Derk Pereboom, whose argument I think I understand reasonably well.

Your characterisation of Pereboom's approach as a pincer movement is good - I must use that. But any quantum events that have causal impact on our decisions are still part of the causal order - i.e. they feed in to what happens later. I think it's perfectly fair as shorthand to say that Pereboom bases his argument on the idea that we are unable to step out of the causal order when we make decisions.

So I don't see what is wrong with conceding that Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, and Derk Pereboom make these kinds of arguments rather than using arguments based on the sorts of issues raised in, say, the Lazy Argument or by Richard Taylor when he defends what he thinks of as a form of fatalism.

All that said, I wish you'd write a book on all this. You did a wonderful job of clearing up a lot of confused issues in an accessible way in your book on moral relativism. I can't think of anyone who could do a better job with this whole area of free will/determinism/fatalism, etc. So how about it? I'd totally buy that book and plug it to others.

I'd also be interested in your argument for hard determinism or hard incompatibilism. The debate that I'm involved in here is about whether causal determinism (+ the element of chancy indeterminism that I'm sure Jerry and Sam accept even if they don't always refer to it) are incompatible with free will. I'd love to have you reinforce me on my position that they are not. I could do with the reinforcement because, hey, I seem to be adopting a position that's a minority one in my corner of the internet even if it's a majority one among philosophers.

But sure, if you have an independent reason to think that we don't have free will would you care to sketch it for us? Maybe you'll convince me. I'm not at all convinced by the arguments that Jerry and Sam have been putting, but that doesn't mean I'm beyond being convinced. My position is actually not that far from Pereboom's - it's largely a matter of semantics. In fact, even my differences with Sam Harris on this are largely a matter of semantics. But if you have an argument that's independent of the sort of considerations we've been debating, by all means throw it into the mix.

Tom Clark said...


"But, if we are speaking and deciding what to do about a criminal's behavior, the statement "'she could have done otherwise,' helps ignore, like in Richard's example, WHAT the state of the brain was at the time of choice, and WHY the state was that way. It encourages us to stop analyzing the situation..."

Yes, nice point, and I like your political cards, hope you'll contact me at twc at naturalism dot org

Neil said...

Russell, here's the book you asked for.


Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Neil.

Russell Blackford said...

The book looks more specific than I was talking about, but I guess you have to cover the more general background to make your arguments. I'll definitely buy it and read it.

Jason Streitfeld said...

It looks like the confusion has played out, but I'm compelled to throw in a couple of cents. I'm sympathetic with Russell here, and I'm curious how much agreement there is between us.

To say we make a choice or a decision is merely to say that we adopt one plan among given alternatives. This does not imply that the alternatives were ever physically possible, nor does it imply that the decision could have been other than what it was. All it implies is that (1) there are representations of plans as options for future behavior, (2) one of those representations becomes an active part of our behavior (as an intention) and (3) the representation of an option as such plays a causal role in the production of the intention (I suppose by satisfying some conditions which we normally think of as wants/needs). There need not be a "free" act which takes us from (1) to (2). There simply need be (1), (2) and (3). That's enough for there to be a decision/choice.

I think that's the sort of thing Russell has in mind. It fits our normal talk of decisions/choices and it doesn't require any indeterminacy in the universe. And I agree with Russell that any stipulation of an uncaused act which would presumably get us from (1) to (2) would not make our decision any more real. There is no benefit (explanatory or otherwise) for postulating such an uncaused event. It would make our decisions "free" in a particular sense of that term, but it would also make them utterly arbitrary. We do have the ability to make more or less arbitrary decisions, but our sense of responsibility and accountability does not depend on it, and is not even enhanced by it.

When we say "I could have done otherwise," I suppose what we normally mean is that we did not feel strongly compelled to act one way rather than another. Or, if we did feel so compelled, we regard that compulsion as the result of a prior decision which was not compulsory. So we are admitting to a degree of weakness in the conditions which define our decision-making process. This entails a degree of freedom with respect to a particular variety of causal influence--namely, freedom with respect to our own wants/needs. So maybe free will, in common terms, is just the ability to choose without compulsion--that is, without the feeling that we have to choose one option rather than another.

March Hare said...

Jason: "This does not imply that the alternatives were ever physically possible, nor does it imply that the decision could have been other than what it was."

Then in what sense is it an alternative or a choice?

If I do not fly away when a car is heading towards me, since it's physically impossible, is that a decision I have made, was it ever an actual alternative?

Or, as I suspect, are we adding a lot of unspoken assumptions to what constitutes a 'valid' alternative and hiding them when we say that no alternatives were physically possible but they were genuine alternatives nonetheless?

Richard Wein said...

I've been giving quite a lot of thought to the meaning of "could have done". It's the sort of difficult semantic question that interests me. My conclusion is that "could have done" has a broad meaning that can subsume a number of more specific, narrower meanings.

It may help to see things more clearly if we look at examples that don't involve a person, and so where the fraught issue of "free will" doesn't arise. It seems to me that the same reasoning that leads some people to deny that "he could have done otherwise" in a deterministic world should also lead them to deny that an impersonal event "could have happened otherwise". For example, if a tossed coin has come up heads, it seems to follow (by the same reasoning) that it couldn't have come up tails. If we accept that it could have come up tails, this seems to undermine the basis for saying "he couldn't have done otherwise".

Consider two coins that have come up heads, where A is a normal coin and B a two-headed coin:

(1) "Coin A could have come up tails".
(2) "Coin B couldn't have come up tails".

It seems to me that a useful distinction is being made here, and that (1) and (2) are conveying some real information about the different natures of the coins, even in a deterministic universe. To the extent that (1) is conveying real, useful information, it seems fair to say that it's true in some sense.

I think there's a parallel with the "interpretations of probability" debate. The probabilistic equivalents (at least in some respects) of (1) and (2) are:

(3) "Coin A had probability 1/2 of coming up heads or tails".
(4) "Coin B had probability 1 of coming up heads and 0 of tails".

The determinist incompatibilist seems to be denying the possibility of making useful probability estimates (other than 1 or 0) for events whose outcome is already known. Yet surely (3) and (4) are conveying real, useful information about the different natures of the coins.

Just as philosophers and probability theorists have recognised multiple meanings of probability, I think there are roughly parallel meanings of "could". I think the interpetation given by some (that it refers to alternate prior states) is too specific. I don't think people generally have alternate prior states in mind (even at a subconscious level) when they say "could". Such an interpretation may be a useful technical ("philosophical") sense, but to insist that it's _the_ sense is mistaken, in my opinion.

I think each side in this debate is trivially right about whether "he could have done otherwise" given the sense that they each mean it. But those senses don't encompass the full meaning of "could have". And, as you might expect from something which is trivially true (or false) it's not a useful conclusion in either of those senses.

Jason Streitfeld said...

March Hare: It is represented to us as an alternative which we evaluate according to (often flexible) standards. The process of deliberation may be completely deterministic, but there's plenty of evidence that such processes occur. They occur frequently in plain sight, in public discourse.

A comparison to natural selection might help. Darwin's use of the term "natural selection" might seem metaphorical, as if natural selection were fundamentally unlike artificial selection. I don't think that's the case.

Perhaps you think determinism means that there is neither natural nor artificial selection--that the term is inappropriate in a deterministic universe. I don't think that makes much sense. As I wrote in my last post, postulating an uncaused event would not make our decisions any more real. It would only make them utterly arbitrary.

Back to Darwin . . . Natural selection occurs when genotypes dominate their competitors in a population. They are differentially selected, which means that they dominate because they satisfy certain conditions better than their competitors. Similarly, in artificial selection, genotypes become dominant because they satisfy certain conditions better than their competitors. The only difference is that, in artificial selection, the process has a new, unnecessary element: plans. The conditions which must be satisfied in artificial selection are part of breeding plans.

So, in both artificial and natural selection, the process can be completely deterministic, and yet the term "selection" has a precise and appropriate meaning, and this meaning is not so different from what we normally mean when we talk about decisions and choices. The main differences are that (1) in the latter case, we are selecting plans themselves, and not genotypes, and (2) the outcome of the process of selection is not the prevalence of a genotype in a population, but the adoption of an intention (represented plan of action) in human behavior.

Just as genotypes can be selected in a deterministic universe, so too can plans. We call the former sort of selection "speciation" and "breeding," and the latter sort "making a decision."

March Hare said...

Richard, I think it all boils down to your position and knowledge within the system.

When I play poker and require a heart as the last card to make my flush then I bet as I feel as if I could win (or afterwards, could have won). That is because I am ignorant of an actual certainty within the system (the card is what the card is). However if we play with transparent cards then I know what the final card will be and alter my strategy accordingly since I know whether I will win or not.

If I have set up the deck then I know what order the cards are in and know that it could not have been different but the person next to me is ignorant of this and they think it could have been different had the shuffle been slightly different.

If you take another step back and understand the mechanics of the shuffle machine and know the order of the cards placed in it then you will know the order that will be returned - this will be a definite piece of data that could not have been otherwise and yet everyone else, who are ignorant of this, will think each card could have been something different.

I think the point is that the phrase "could have done" is simply betraying our ignorance of the system and shows that we deal with it using probabilities which, by their very nature, entail a "could have been different" aspect. Reality may disagree.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Maybe an example might better address your question, March Hare. Say you look at a restaurant menu and decide to have tomato soup, and not the French onion soup. You've made a choice, but when you order, you find out that there's no soup today. So neither option was really an option. And yet, you made a choice.

The fact that we make choices does not mean that any of the choices we make correspond to physical possibilities, though (fortunately) they often do. Similarly, the alternatives we don't choose are still alternatives, even if they aren't physically possible. To be an alternative is to be represented as an alternative.

So, with the soup example, you had options with respect to the menu, even if you didn't have options with respect to the restaurant staff. Of course, even though the staff tells you there's no soup, you could theoretically go into the kitchen yourself make some tomato soup. The fact that the restaurant does not offer you soup as an alternative does not mean you are physically incapable of having your soup at that restaurant.

Richard Wein said...

March Hare,

I agree that an important meaning of probability claims is as an expression of ignorance. In that sense, when I say the probability of tails was 1/2 (after the coin has come up heads) I can be referring to my ignorance before I saw the result. At that time I had no reason to expect one outcome more than the other. Similarly, "it could have happened" can refer to a possibility that was still live (for me) at the time. For example, "as far as we knew at the time, the coin under his hand could have been tails, even though it turned out later to have been heads all along".

But in both cases (probability and "could have") I think it's a mistake to restrict the meaning to _just_ this interpretation. Not only do meanings vary from instance to instance, but I argue that any given instance can have multiple meanings. Meaning is ultimately an interpretation that we put on a causal process in the brain, and a given utterance may be caused by multiple processes, corresponding to multiple meanings. (That's my theory of meaning in a nutshell.)