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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On deciding to do things that are important

Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry has a post in which he tells us, among other things:

It's important for all of us to at least become acquainted with this [multiverse] theory because, as Jason [Rosenhouse] points out, it has theological implications — not only about whether our planet is the special object of God’s attention, but because multiverses are relevant to the “fine-tuning” argument for God beloved of religious scientists.  Theologians often sneer at the multiverse theory as a ploy atheistic physicists to reject what they see as strong evidence for God. That’s why it’s important (beyond simply keeping up with exciting ideas in cosmology) to know why physicists posit multiverses, and to see that the idea is not something scientists concocted to get around the fine-tuning arguments.

I don't disagree with that. Good on yer, Jerry.

Note, however, that this passage offers us a reason to become acquainted with multiverse theory. It appeals, for example, to our desire to understand whether multiverse theory is a contrivance to get around fine-tuning arguments. If I had no such desire, I could simply shrug all this off and say, "Who cares?" But Jerry is correct to assume that many of us, including me, actually do care about these sorts of things. Thus, when you combine this with some information about the theory, we have our motivation for reading up on it. Although this is only implicit in what Jerry says - he doesn't put it quite like that - it's there. And once again, I agree. He's put forward considerations that will motivate lots of us to read up on multiverse theory if we haven't already, or to read up on it some more.

But what does he have in mind when he offers us reasons for considering whether to read up on multiverse theory? He seems to think that we are capable of thinking about these considerations and coming to a decision to read up on the theory. If we're not really capable of doing that, why suggest that we do it? The point is that even Jerry, who denies the existence of free will, at least thinks that people are capable of deliberating (e.g., I think about the reasons he's offered me for reading up on multiverse theory), coming to decisions (I may decide to go and do the reading up), acting on them (I may actually do the reading up), and producing results (as a result of my reading I may become more knowledgeable and, among other things, better able to debate with theologians).

It's being assumed that we really do deliberate about our actions, make decisions based on our beliefs and desires, and so on. If I didn't think that, I wouldn't offer you facts and ideas to deliberate about. Neither would Jerry if he didn't think something along those lines (but see below!). If I thought all this was an illusion, I'd have no reason to offer you facts and ideas to think about for the purposes of making decisions.

I suppose the comeback might be that I'd do it anyway, since I'd have no choice in the matter! My actions in offering you reasons for considering things might just be "what happens". But really...

None of which settles the meaning of the term "free will", which is all-important to debating whether such a thing exists. But it does at least highlight the difficulty in adopting an error theory in respect of all our everyday discourse about deliberating, thinking things over, making decisions, choosing from options, picking, selecting, and so on. If we believe this kind of talk is analogous to talk about, say, witches - it doesn't refer to anything real - we'd better think through the consequences (though I suppose that would be impossible if we were right!).

If we're going to say that this sort of talk is okay, but that, nonetheless, we don't have free will, we'd better define what message is actually communicated when we tell someone, "You don't have free will."

As I said a few posts back, I'm not in love with the term "free will", which sounds rather grandiose and may not convey anything terribly clear when used outside philosophical discussions where it's defined. But telling someone she doesn't have free will is probably worse - more misleading - than telling someone she does. What she does have, unless her circumstances are very bleak indeed, is considerable ability to make choices that are based on her own values, and which then lead to actions that make a difference to the world.


Tom Clark said...

"None of which settles the meaning of the term 'free will', which is all-important to debating whether such a thing exists."

There's no single settled definition of the term "free will" forthcoming since it's
commonly used to refer to at least two different sorts of capacities. One is the (non-existent, unreal) contra-causal capacity to have acted otherwise than one did in an actual situation, the other is the (real) capacity to control one's behavior according to one's desires and deliberations, as opposed to being coerced, manipulated, or insane.

This means there is no single *correct* meaning of the term "free will" that we must use to establish whether it exists or not. What exists (or not) are the things that "free will" is variously used to refer to.

So, when you advise "we'd better define what message is actually communicated when we tell someone, 'You don't have free will.'", it's a straightforward matter of saying first what you're referring to by "free will" and then saying why the person doesn't (or does) have what you're referring to.

"But telling someone she doesn't have free will is probably worse - more misleading - than telling someone she does."

Au contraire, I routinely tell people who suppose that they have *contra-causal* free will (many folks in the US) that they don't have *contra-causal* free will; they're laboring under a anti-scientific, disempowering and ultimately dehumanizing confusion about human nature, http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm Seems like Australia might be better off in this regard.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Neil won't like it if you use the term "contra-causal" because he'll say that the best libertarian accounts of free will still leave room for our actions to be "caused" (in a sense) by our desires - i.e. it's our desires make it probable that we'll phi or psi (even if phi-ing and psi-ing are diametrically opposite courses of action) rather than xi-ing, while not being determinative of whether we phi or psi. We had that debate last year.

What I say is that this then leaves it very mysterious why I phi rather than psi.

Be all that as it may, if you tell someone she "doesn't have contra-causal free will" it sounds as if you're making a technical point that might well be true, which you are. If you simply tell her "You don't have free will" it sounds, at least to me but I suspect to many people, as if you're peddling some kind of fatalism. I.e. as if you're denying that we can control our behaviour or exert influence on the world according to our desires, values, and deliberations.

I think this is the nub of the argument between me and Jerry (and Sam).

Physicalist said...

That's a good point. The common notion of free will is a somewhat incoherent mish-mash of notions.

We can grant that the compatibilist account won't satisfy 10% of the common conception (which is largely inconsistent anyhow). But when people like Jerry or Sam claim that we don't have free will, they're throwing out the 90% that we can satisfy (and that's what we really care about anyway).

(I tried to write up a little response to Jerry over at my place as well.)

March Hare said...

The reason we don't read up on multi-verse theory is because there is a threshold Y that we see as the cost of looking into it and a reward of learning more X, for most of us X > Y.

What Jerry has done is to give most people a reason to view the reward as X+1. For some of us this will make it greater than Y, for some not.

I would urge caution in showing the thought processes we go through to see if X+1 > Y is deliberating in terms of conscious thinking - I'm definitely not saying it isn't, but we are nearing the stage when neuroscience might give us an answer as to whether deliberation is merely the conscious representation of underlying subconscious processes that come to a decision and our conscious minds rationalise it after the fact, or not.

An awful lot of our brain activity is at a subconscious level and we are very adept at giving reasons about things after the fact, it allows us to feel like we are in control, 'we' being the conscious part of the brain, when in fact the other parts of the brain had got their desires in order and an action had been set in motion before the 'we' got the memo.

As a piece of speculation I am coming to think of the conscious part of the brain as a kind of trainer for the other parts of the brain, good decisions (outcomes?) are rewarded and bad decisions punished. Perhaps the conscious part of the brain is also gatekeeper tot he reward centres? I'm sure neuroscience will disavow me of this notion in a short time but it is a theory that has some explanatory power.

Even if this were true, it still doesn't disprove we make decisions, all it shows is that we don't make conscious ones - or at least not as many as we think we do.

Basically, just as I was rebuked in a previous post about being careful not to give a just-so story of evolution, we should similarly be careful about assuming too much about what exactly the conscious part of the brain is in charge of.

bad Jim said...

What bugs me about the free will argument is the same thing that bugs me about the cosmological argument. They're both results of thinking about things from first principles instead of observing what actually happens.

An analytical philosopher might point out where Aristotle or Aquinas go off the rails, but I, a rough pragmatist practitioner can only exclaim "What nonsense!" While it might be satisfying to cite Feynman, or any other practioner of quantum theory, to falsify the ancients' precepts, it's been clear for a long while that at best they weren't even wrong.

Arguments about free will aren't necessarily more respectable. So long as the question of proving the correctness of programs is intractable I won't have to search for a more difficult problem to throw into the breach. Perhaps the burden of proof ought to be put on the other side: predict us!

We're fallible meat machines, probabilistic in our workings and subject to random inputs as well as our own unlimited recursive cogitations and those of everyone we meet. It's a bit of a stretch to characterize us and the rest of our fellow creatures as automata before we have a better idea how we do what we do.

Jerry Coyne said...


I can only give my take on what I mean by "not having free will." And it's just what you said in your last post on this: we can't step outside the causality of nature, even in our brains."

Of course you can be influenced to read the article by what I say: that's an environmental impact on your brains. But given that impact, you will or not read the article, depending on the configurations of molecules in your body after you've read my post!

Complete determinism does not mean that people can't be influenced by other people's opinions.


Felix said...

I agree with Jerry.

He had no free will in writing his blog post.

You had no free will in reading it and having read it you had no free will in writing this post.

However, had he not read it due to being hit by an asteroid, you would not have written this post.

Myron said...

Two new books to read:

* Barrow, John D. The Book of Universes. London: The Bodley Head, 2011.

* Greene, Brian. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Anonymous said...

Parallel universes by definition can never be observed or visited and will forever remain non-falsifiable and therefore meaningless under the strict rules of Logical positivism as defined by Popper. As such,
it is an explanation equivalent to "evidence for divine design" and just as meaningless in a scientific sense. If a "parallel" universe could be visited or observed, it wouldn't be a separate universe at all but a different region of the same space-time. From the point of view of being non-falsifiable, "God" and "parallel universes" are equally valid explanations (even Schermer admitted as much in "Why We Believe").
Furthermore, multiple universes cannot in themselves provide an explanation for the fine tuning of the forces (Martin Rees' "Six Numbers") that make life in this universe possible. When the universe splits with each "quantum decision" made by an elementary particle both new universes are virtually identical to each other except for this single quantum difference that caused the split, all other attributes would be the same. As such, they would share the same physical laws, constants, etc. The quantum multiplication of universes would not result in changes in physical properties.
Lastly, the many worlds hypothesis is not "elegant", as most successful physical theories are. Its a crude blunderbuss approach requiring a near infinity of universes to explain a few basic forces and characteristics, epistemological over kill. God is a much simpler explanation. Oddly enough, in this case, Occam's Razor works in God's favor.

Richard Wein said...

Jerry wrote:

--I can only give my take on what I mean by "not having free will." And it's just what you said in your last post on this: we can't step outside the causality of nature, even in our brains."--

Given the confusion over what it means to say "we don't have free will", wouldn't it be better to drop that phrase and just say "we can't step outside the causality of nature", if that's what you mean?

That said, I have my doubts as to whether the latter phrase is much more meaningful than the former. But at least it becomes clearer that you're making an abstruse metaphysical point, and not a practical one.

Stuart Andrew said...

Surely it's trivially obvious that we ACT as though we had free will. If we didn't, we wouldn't be concerned about the question of free will.

The real problem for free will, in my mind, is that all of the good evidence supports the idea that our decision making process is overwhelmingly unconscious, and that the appearance of conscious decision making is actually provided by a process of post hoc confabulation.

Given that we appear to have little or no access to our actual decision making, and that the conscious, reflective portion of our minds seems not to be involved in it except to rationalise decisions we've already made, it seems to me that even the standard compatibilist positions are in trouble.

Russell Blackford said...

Anonymous you don't understand either the point of the post or Occam's Razor. Of course, the former is more relevant.

Russell Blackford said...

Jerry, the thing about your comment is that you make compatibilism false by definition.

It's better, I believe, to think about what is actually conveyed to a stray person whom you might bump into somewhere - in a lift, say - if you tell them, "You don't have free will."

It might be that it doesn't convey anything very coherent at all, but what I think it's most likely to convey is that you're proposing some sort of fatalism. (It might also be taken as a weird invitation to engage in sex, I suppose; but le'ts bracket off that possibility.)

If you tell someone they do have free will ... well you're most likely to convey that fatalism is false, that they can make deliberated decisions based on their values, and that these can lead to real effects on their lives and the larger world.

By and large, the message to someone that they do have free will seems to me to be more accurate than the message to them they don't. And the latter message says nothing about whether causal determinism is true or false - or it's compatible with causal determinism or with a pincer movement of causal determinism and some randomness.

Sure, if you want to define, "You don't have free will" as basically meaning that causal determinism is approximately true (approximately because of quantum events that can have effects that scale up) and we are part of the causal order, then I think you're right. But I don't think that's the most obvious meaning of, "You don't have free will."

But again, banging on about free will is vague and grandiose, and it's not something I'd normally do. It's probably better to focus on what capacities we actually do have.

Unknown said...

I recently got into a debate with someone at work about free will where I more or less took the position that "we don't have free will". This didn't seem to get me anywhere. This individual immediately presumed I was a fatalistic, and has gone so far as to now refer to me as a "predeterminist"; they are convinced that I think all outcomes are set in stone and that I think that learning something new can't possibly change a person's mind - that their mind is "made up" regardless of what future experiences they have (which is, needless to say, completely ridiculous)

Despite attempting to clarify my position repeatedly, this person seemed to be simply incapable of understanding what I meant. They seemed to think that the only two possiblities are:

1. Fatalism
2. Contra-causal free will (for lack of a better term coming to mind)

For them, a non-fatalist position seems to come bundled up with the view that our deliberations are made in a way that transcends the 'causality of nature'.

It doesn't appear to me that labeling myself a determinist and saying "we don't have free will" brought this person any closer to understanding my position; on the contrary, it seems at least in this case to have backfired, and convinced the person I advocate a position which I don't.

Granted, this is just a single anecdote, but this is just a manifestation of a general trend I've encountered - if you take on the mantle of a "determinist", most people DO seem to regard the position as being fatalistic, and to be misled by it. This is unfortunate, because they seem to(rightly) dismiss that, and then go on maintaining whatever bizarre, muddled ideas they seem to have that their decisions are exempt from causality in some mysterious way.

Blake Stacey said...

Just thought I'd chime in as an atheistic physicist who doesn't think highly of multiverse speculations. None of the scientific (or at least science-y) rationales for multiversism strike me as compelling. Eternal inflation is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain what the astronomers see. Nothing — not quantum computation, not cosmology, nothing — mandates a many-worlds view of quantum mechanics. Etc.

So, no, we science folk don't have answers for the Big Questions(TM) which multiversology claims to address. But that doesn't make theological bafflegab respectable by default.

Blake Stacey said...

I was in an airport bookstore the other day, killing time before my flight departed, and I saw Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality on the shelf. I flipped to the endnotes, which I figured would be the most informative part for a reader who already works in physics. My reaction after my browsing time was a solid, "Meh." (There was also a certain amount of WTF: "He thinks Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber is a rigorous version of Copenhagen? Out of all the views which have been variously tagged as Copenhagenist, which make that make any sense?" And so forth, in a technical vein.) Unenthusing, FWIW.

Tom Clark said...

"But again, banging on about free will is vague and grandiose, and it's not something I'd normally do. It's probably better to focus on what capacities we actually do have."

Discussions of free will are productive so long as one defines in advance what one means by it. To the extent people think free will is real and refers to contra-causal capacities, it's vital to debunk that belief, since it deflects attention from actual causes of human behavior, thus disempowering us, and allows attribution of ultimate credit and blame that helps justify regressive social policies, for instance in criminal justice and economic inequality, http://www.naturalism.org/progressivepolitics.htm

So this is not an idle or academic issue, but a matter of central importance in moving toward a science-based (naturalistic) understanding of ourselves such that we gain both in compassion and control. Understanding "what capacities we actually do have" necessarily involves ruling out those we don't, so making explicit that we don't transcend natural cause and effect, what Jerry has brought to the fore (as has the Center for Naturalism over the past decade), is perfectly appropriate.

But it's equally important, in order to avoid demoralization, to make clear that we're not denying the real capacities of human agents to control behavior and outcomes according to their desires, and also make clear that determinism isn't equivalent to fatalism, perhaps the hardest point to make to the folk as Lance's anecdote illustrates.

K said...

"That’s why it’s important (beyond simply keeping up with exciting ideas in cosmology) to know why physicists posit multiverses, and to see that the idea is not something scientists concocted to get around the fine-tuning arguments."
I've seen the same thing with evolution - that evolution is drawn to by atheists because it's the only way to try to explain design without God (a simplified summary of no-doubt sophisticated arguments I've encountered). It's as if the only reason we try to explain anything is because some believer has put the God flag on the intellectual landscape and it's up to us to show why it's not in-fact God's intellectual dominion.

It's confusing more than anything else, why would fine-tuning mean God to begin with? The design argument has been shown as bunk for some 250 years or so, whether there is one universe or many isn't going to change that.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid you missed my point.

Why bother even talking about something as unscientific as multiple universes when you could be talking about something whose existence is actually testable or falsifiable - like unicorns.

Russell Blackford said...

@ Lance and Tom ... my take on this is that we have to remember that ordinary people who are not involved in arcane theological/philosophical debates - the man or woman on the proverbial Clapham omnibus as it were - is likely to hear a denial of free will as some sort of fatalist claim. It's possible, of course, that different people on the Clapham omnibus will hear different things, in which case there's no single meaning Out There. (That's also a possibility with moral language, for example: it's not clear just what people hear when claims are made about something being "morally forbidden", for example. Do they or do they not hear a claim that some moral norm is objectively binding?)

Still, until such a time as someone produces better data than we have so far, it looks to me as if the meaning that is actually likely to be given to a denial of free will, the way the language actually works and is received by ordinary communicators, is an affirmation of fatalism.

We can, of course, stipulate meanings in a philosophical discussion. But there's always the important question of what words and phrases like "free will" or "no free will" or "morally wrong" actually convey to ordinary competent language-users.

Ivo said...

Very well said. I've had similar thoughts since high school, which later have been reinforced by Dennett's Freedom Evolves. Also, I've seen the bleak effect, on an already troubled mind, of believing that "we have no free will" and "everything is predetermined anyway".

Tom Clark said...

Are the risks of demoralization from misunderstandings about fatalism enough to justify not debunking contra-causal agency? Some think so, which is why they would rather not have public (as opposed to academic) discussions which question free will, even if specifically about libertarian free will. They suppose the folk are incapable of making the distinction between determinism and fatalism, so best not to try to disabuse them of the idea (which many folk have) that human beings are exempt from natural laws in some crucial respect.

I disagree, since the damage done by that idea is huge and I think that most people *can* eventually be led to see that, even though human beings and their actions are fully caused phenomena, our deliberations and actions are just as causally effective and consequential as the various causes which shape us.

As discussed at http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm I think the cat is out of the bag and we need to debunk the myth of contra-causal freedom head on in public; like getting free of God, it's a stage in growing up as a species.

March Hare said...

But Russell, should we actually br concerned about what the ordinary language users take from things specialists in any field say?

When people talk of "solid ground" there is a massive disconnect between what they 'know' and reality. Reality states that "solid ground" is actually a very thin crust floating on a molten lake and that's before we even get to the fact that the vast, vast majority of "solid ground" is actually empty space and the only resistance they feel is from the outer shell of electrons pushing against each other under the force of gravity.

The other issue I have with this discussion is that it all appears to simply be a matter of perspective. For the person having a decision to make they appear to have options and deliberate between them. For the person giving options they know there are options but have no idea whether the person with the decision to make has any options, and from an outside perspective it is a completely closed system where no decision was made, simply an answer to the various equations was worked out by the various components in the system. e.g. When I type a calculation into a calculator it has a vast number of options to give me as the answer, but it actually can only give me one due to the way the system is set up. That we can be self referential does not in any way change the fixed outcome of any decision.

From this I think fatalism, with a sprinkling of quantum indeterminacy, is the most likely conclusion. Albeit not the definition of fatalism that the man on the street might understand it as, but so what? Why should any field try to accommodate the man on the street's understanding of reality?

Russell Blackford said...

MC: Yes. What we want to know is what the expression "free will" means in ordinary language. We then want to know whether it exists. Or, rather, whether the expression, "You/we do not have free will", as used in ordinary language, is true. In the process of analysis we may need to introduce a lot of jargon of our own, but our starting point is that we are trying to solve, or at least clarify, the problem that actually bugs ordinary people.

We can, of course, also critique, say, theological concepts of free will. But words and phrases have meanings which are given by the way they are used socially.

The same applies to expressions like "morally wrong". As philosophers, we want to try to nail down what these expressions mean in ordinary language. We then want to know whether moral wrongness in that sense actually exists.

Obviously we'll end up saying much more, but we at least want to understand what terms mean or convey in their ordinary usage. This is why philosophers spend so much time engaging in conceptual analysis to try to clarify terms in their pre-philosophical meanings. (It's also why I believe that we should do more empirical research to try to find out what words and phrases actually convey to people - in general or to various demographics.)

Tom Clark said...

"What we want to know is what the expression 'free will' means in ordinary language. We then want to know whether it exists. Or, rather, whether the expression, 'You/we do not have free will', as used in ordinary language, is true."

As experimental philosophers are demonstrating, there's no univocal meaning of "free will" out there among the folk. Rather, there are at least two conceptions, libertarian and compatibilist. So the ordinary language expression "you do not have free will" can be either true or false, depending on the meaning of "free will" being used.

See Shaun Nichols Science article on this, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6023/1401.full

He writes: "Just as philosophers have advocated diametrically opposed views on whether determinism undermines responsibility, ordinary people offer conflicting views on the matter. In some cases, people tend to say that determinism would undermine responsibility; in other cases, they tend to regard determinism as compatible with responsibility."

Russell Blackford said...

There's a difference between a truth about what you will do and a truth about what you can do. And the word "can" has different meanings.

I'm just throwing this in FWIW. Carry one.

Russell Blackford said...

er "on". Not "one".


Steve Zara said...

Just caught up with this discussion. It's a good one.

I'm a compatibilist for now, but I have a concern that I might be being a compatibilist simply by definition and not because of evidence. But for now it seems appropriate, because I think there is a parallel with consciousness:

We know that there is a public use of the term 'consciousness'. However, what it may turn out to be is probably nothing at all like the general use: consciousness probably will have none of the 'Cartesian Theatre' characteristics that people tend to feel that it has. However, we continue to use the term 'consciousness' in science and philosophy even though there is this likely disconnect with general usage. This could apply to 'free will' too?