Free will and psychological determinism

philosoraptor-dinosaur-thinkingby Steve Snyder

Inspired mainly by Marko Vojinovic’s recent essay on physical determinism [1], but also by Mark O’Brien on consciousness [2], Massimo Pigliucci on Hume and skepticism [3], and perhaps a bit by Graham Priest on logic and Buddhism [4], all which skirted the edges of the free will debate, I am going to tackle it from what I see as its flip side, which I will call psychological determinism.

First, a few ground points.

1. I am not actually sure if “psychological determinism” is the best phrase for what I see as the mental counterpoint to libertarian free will, or “something like free will,” as I call what I believe. That said, it’s the best term available, I think.

2. I will spell this out as “psychological determinism,” lest anybody get the idea I am talking about physical determinism., which I don’t consider tenable [5]. And, in line with Massimo’s pleas to focus and narrow discussion a bit, I encourage commenters to stay focused on free will and psychological determinism.

2a. Without necessarily calling myself a libertarian free willer, if the determinism to which free will is supposed to make itself compatible is physical determinism, I reject compatibilist versions of free will.

3. Given that psychology is a social science and thus, theoretically scientific (ahead of economics, at least, on its actual science level among social sciences), and in the worlds of modern neuroscience (fMRIs of dead salmon brains in particular, and overstated knowledge claims in general aside) has specific parallels in harder sciences, it’s legitimate to talk about this as an intersection of science and philosophy. (Psychology has had a clear intersection with philosophy from the days of Hume, arguably the world’s first psychologist.)

4. That said, I think that cognitive science and science of mind are, at best, in the Early Bronze Age of understanding, and perhaps in the Neolithic. We just don’t know enough about the mind to say exactly what we should call decision-making. I am going to call it that, though, with the clear implication that we will find that “something like free will” exists. As I noted two years ago, we are making progress on what science has to show us [6].

4a. Setting aside hype about the recently announced US and EU brain projects, the science of the mind is likely to make little progress in the near future, and thus, beyond what we know today, we can reasonably speculate ahead.

4b. Given that the issue of free will, or something like it, “versus” psychological determinism, is getting ever more airing in courts of law, at least in the US, it is a matter at the intersection of science, philosophy, and public policy which is not to be avoided.

5. I am also a non-dualist in general. That’s applies not just to dualism of ontological categories, like body-soul dualism. I generally reject dualism as a term for polarities. I will show how this plays out on this issue below.

And with that, I am going to connect issues of free will and determinism … to Buddhism! (But only as a psychology, folks.) I’m going to explain why I reject free will in the sense of being associated with a unitary self, and also why I say “mu” to the whole dualistic issue of “free will versus determinism.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it comes from Zen Buddhism. There’s no precise translation in English, but a good approximation to the meaning is to “unask” a question or idea. In other words, saying “mu” to “free will vs. determinism” rejects the dualism, that these are the only two ways of looking at decision-making in human consciousness. Related to that, to the degree that these are ever useful terms, it rejects the polarity behind them, that is the idea that a particular action is either one hundred percent determined or one hundred percent of free will.

And that gets us into the meat of the piece.

The reason I say “mu” relates to the idea of subselves, multiple drafts of consciousness, and even Hume’s “fleeting impressions.”

To use Daniel Dennett’s language, if there is no “Cartesian meaner” in a “Cartesian theater,” there’s no “Cartesian free willer” there either. There is no unitary conscious self with a free will at the center of the controls. And, depending on how one understands the idea of “volition” — how much daylight one puts between it and “free will,” and spells this out — there’s arguably no “Cartesian volitioner” there either.

Now, whether our subselves, or whatever of the “multiple drafts” is in the driver’s seat at any particular moment, might be engaged in something that might be called quasi-free will, is another question. I think something like that does happen. But, it’s as ephemeral as that particular subself, “draft,” or whatever, is in the driver’s seat. So, in that sense, I’m not totally against all of the ideas that are lumped under the rubric “free will.”

If you’ll allow me another sidebar, Dennett is not alone on these ideas, and he’s far from the first to express most of them. The “multiple drafts” language may be his, but little else is. In fact, Hume’s famous “I never can catch myself” observation is the origin, within the Western philosophical tradition, of much of this way of looking at things.

Another reason I oppose the idea of “free will” linked to a single unitary conscious self is somewhat related, and moves us from philosophy back to science. I do believe there’s a fair amount of value to the Benjamin Libet experiments and related research, even if sometimes, some people have overstated what they tell us.

Here, I disagree with John Horgan, who in a Scientific American column about free will and New Year’s resolutions, says [7]:

“Libet’s clock experiment is a poor probe of free will, because the subject has made the decision in advance to push the button; he merely chooses when to push. I would be surprised if the EEG sensors or implanted electrodes did not find neural anticipation of that choice.”

I don’t understand Libet that way. I’ve always understood it, and his work to separate subjective feelings of, and belief in, personal volition, from a (theoretically) objective idea of something called “free will,” as refuting the existence of any such objective idea. Horgan’s use of the word “subject” indicates where he stands.

This take on Libet’s famous experiments is in general line with what I’m saying [8]:

“The real importance of Libet’s experiment is that it is a compelling refutation of dualism.  From a non-dualistic point of view the result is not problematic in any way, but from a dualistic point of view it is impossible to make sense of.”

To tie this back to Dennett, whatever or whomever we think is in the driver’s seat as the apparent unitary self of the moment has decided nothing. Some unconscious or subconscious “entity” seems to have done the deciding, or anything we would call deciding if it were done by a conscious entity. Whether this “whomever” is an organized subself or not, neuroscience can’t tell us today, and therefore, per Wittengenstein, philosophy should resist speculation. As for what neuroscience may be able to tell us in the near future, I refer to the Wikipedia overview, which includes information on follow-ups to the original Libet [9].

Also, Horgan appears to be trying to distinguish between “free will” and “volition.” I don’t think there’s as much daylight between the two as he, and many others, may make it out to be, as noted above. At a minimum, critiques of unitary free will from the multiple drafts and subselves point of view would also apply to ideas of unitary volition.

What Libet does not tell us is anything about physical determinism; nor is it likely to tell us anything about psychological determinism. Libet’s results would be true in a physically determined world. How they comport within a psychologically constrained “self,” we can’t (currently) tell and Wittgensteinian silence again applies.

That said, what about veto power? We may still have a “veto” over possible actions, but even then, that veto may vary from subself to subself as to what a particular subself would veto or not, the degree of veto power it has, etc. Beyond that, that veto itself may be at such a deep layer we wouldn’t associate it with a quasi-formed subself, let alone a fully formed self. In short, Libet has some good ideas, but they need much further developing.

So far, part of what I am saying is that what’s actually happening in the human mind is far too complex to reduce to “free will.” It’s another instance where the human brain’s predilection for facile labeling of things leads us astray.

I think Libet’s discussion of antedating and backdating, subconsciously, our understanding of the temporal order of events, relates to that. His ideas here are certainly compatible with Dennett’s multiple drafts theory of consciousness, for example, but Dennett chooses not to go down that path. Why, I don’t know, but I think that Dennett has shows us his limits as a guide.

In short, the phenomena of consciousness in general, and volition in particular are far too complex, and our understanding today far too limited, to cram into a particular philosophical system.

Back to the issue of “mu” and, re Libet, one of those old ideas we need to move beyond. I am talking about the dualism that’s part and parcel of the “free will vs (emphasis needed) determinism” issue. Just because conscious, unitary-self free will doesn’t exist, there’s no need to believe any sort of determinism exists as the opposite pole, or the opposite answer to the question. This is part of why I reject physical determinism as unnecessary, and psychological determinism as one “pole” as incomplete. Since we’re unmasking old questions, we move beyond old ideas.

A good way to further explicate this is per Susan Blackmore’s latest book [10]. I’m sure that, were she to write in detail on this issue, she would have at least a few broadly similar ideas, above all, rejecting the whole dualism/duality present in the traditional framing of this as a “free will vs. determinism” issue.

I feel the same. That’s at the core of my “mu,” and per Hofstadter first tipping me off on the word years ago, why I deliberately use that word in this situation. I think we have to see this whole issue of apparent intentionality in human actions in a non-dualistic way.

That said, per all of the above, I do see some degree of psychological determinism, on an action-by-action basis, somewhat related to more crude statements of this issue, based on fMRIs, for instance in the context of legal defense for certain criminal cases. That is, can something like, say, childhood sexual or physical abuse psychologically determine some of our actions?

I’d say yes, to a degree. Here, I’m rejecting not dualism, narrowly speaking, but something analogous, polarities. Action X may be 23 percent psychologically determined and 77 percent volitional, or whatever word you prefer. Action B may be 42 percent psychologically determined and 58 percent volitional. Action C may be 8 percent psychologically determined, and 92 percent volitional.

If you don’t like the word “determined,” let’s borrow a word from genetics and developmental psychology, and talk about “tendencies.” That way, it sounds less like a classical version of determinism. Just like we have a 90 percent heritable tendency to be tall, a 50 percent one to intelligence, etc., and yet there still is an element of environmental expression related to these traits, ditto on having Z degree of psychological tendency in Action X.

There’s one more major reason I say “mu” to the whole issue. Cognitive science, neuroscience, etc., are perhaps in the Early Bronze Age. Maybe the Neolithic. But, our knowledge curve here, if even from a low base, hints at exponential growth.

Within a few decades, hype aside, we will realize how little we have known about the mind, and to the degree that we have gained new knowledge, we will realize how anachronistic “free will” is, and even more so, the “free will vs. determinism” debate.

I mean, ever since Hume’s famous quote from “A Treatise on Human Nature,” we have no reason to deny how partial and provisional our knowledge of the human mind is:

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.” [11]

At times, to be honest, I become a bit frustrated with people who are either forgetting or ignoring that ideas related to “subselves,” “multiple drafts,” or similar, are more than 250 years old. The fact that free will, psychological determinism, and the paired polarity of insisting that the guiding of human actions is one or the other is shown to be anachronistic in the history of Western philosophy by the man who was, arguably, the world’s first professional psychologist.

What this reminds me of is the back-and-forth of “nature vs. nurture” in terms of human development. We know now that the proper understanding is nature via nurture, and we’re learning ever-more about what the nurture side means.

I must, at the same time, disagree with those (including Massimo) who think that traditional ideas of free will are in some way necessary to morality, especially if they’re worried about the barbarians of physical determinism at the gates.

Eddy Nachamias is an example of someone Massimo has favorably cited in the past [12]

“When (neuroscientist Patrick) Haggard concludes that we do not have free will ‘in the sense we think,’ he reveals how this conclusion depends on a particular definition of free will. Scientists’ arguments that free will is an illusion typically begin by assuming that free will, by definition, requires an immaterial soul or non-physical mind, and they take neuroscience to provide evidence that our minds are physical.”

First, not all neuroscientists make that assumption. And, philosophers like the Daniel Wegner definitely don’t link free will, or its absence, to dualism, or its lack.

Then, there’s this:

“Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them. These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities.”

I use the phrase “free willer of the gaps” to discuss these ideas. If psychological determinism shows that we have less free will, and that what we do have isn’t quite what we think it is, then we have to accept that [13].

Finally, I’m going to turn back to Dennett, and his bête noire on certain issues, Steve Gould.

Without saying this is part of my answer for how the subselves that produce the appearance of a self act, there’s also the question of how all this evolved. Is what appears to be free will an adaptation, or is it, shades of Dennett vs. Gould … a spandrel, i.e., an evolutionary byproduct? Or, at least, is our belief that we have a unitary self, with unitary free will, a spandrel? I side somewhat with Gould on this issue of spandrels in general, as it has some ties with issues concerning evolutionary psychology and some over-the-top claims coming from those quarters.

This then ties back to another version of psychology — evolutionary psychology. I agree very much with Massimo’s criticism of what I call “Pop Ev Psych,” while at the same time stressing that there is a legitimate way of doing evolutionary psychology which leads to legitimate findings.

One of those findings may be that our evolution of “agency imputation” may not just have been about imputing agency to motions and actions perceived by our senses, but imputing agency, i.e., a unitary conscious self, to our own selves. Jason Summers discusses this more [14].

Summers makes a lot of sense. Just as our story-telling abilities may have evolved in part to get us to believe our own stories, so, too, agency imputation and detection may have evolved to get us to believe our own agency. To use words of Dennett, it may have evolved to create our selves as our centers of narrative gravity. Here’s his key point:

“People were too complicated to understand by other means, so the brain evolved the easiest route to analyze these complex behaviors – self reflection. It’s not that people have free will. It’s just our brains gave up trying to predict such complex behavior and instead found a new way of dealing with others. This sense of ‘self’ has allowed us to interact and cooperate with others in ways we couldn’t have otherwise.”

Even if you don’t totally reject the idea of a “self,” if you grant part of the above defining what self is, and the related questions of what consciousness and free will are take on new light. They may not be any “easier,” they may be just as much “hard problems” as before. But, they may also lose a bit of importance if we think that, even in part, they’re  … artifacts? spandrels? of human evolution.

In short, to complete the circle and move us from philosophy back to science, we need to continue our study of how and why the human mind evolved to be able to confidently go down the road of making pronouncements about the actuality, or the appearance of, agency, will, selfhood and more, including, per Nietzsche, the genealogy of morals.

Steve Snyder is a newspaper editor and an atheist with a graduate theological degree. He blogs at Socratic Gadfly on politics, atheism, journalism, sports, and philosophy.

[1] Farewell to determinism, by Marko Vojinovic, Scientia Salon, 11 September 2014.

[2] The intuitional problem of consciousness, by Mark O’Brien, Scientia Salon, 1 September 2014.

[3] Are you sure you have hands?, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 18 June 2014.

[4] Logic, Buddhism, and all that, by Graham Priest, Scientia Salon, 8 September 2014.

[5] The simplemindedness of #determinism, SocraticGadfly, 23 February 2014.

[6] The state of consciousness studies, SocraticGadfly, 30 January 2012.

[7] Why New Year Resolutionaries Should Believe In Free Will, by John Organ, Scientific American blogs, 27 December 2013.

[8] The Libet experiment as a refutation of dualism,

[9] Neuroscience of free will, Wikipedia.

[10] Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[11] Quote from David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature.

[12] Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?, by Eddy Nahmias, The New York Times, 13 November 2011.

[13] Free will – a “god of the gaps” parallel?, SocraticGadfly, 26 November 2011.

[14] The Illusion of Self, by Jason Summers, 27 November 2011.


44 thoughts on “Free will and psychological determinism

  1. Sorry for my bluntness, but this is not the most clearly written essay that has appeared on this site. As far as I can tell, the message boils down mostly to “instead of either-or, actions may be partly determined and partly volitional”, but the language used to convey this borders on the obscurantist.

    But simply saying “mu” because stuff is complicated doesn’t cut it. There are beliefs at play in the discussion that can and should be addressed with a definite yes or no:

    (1) Are “we” a supernatural soul-thingy that rides along in our bodies, controlling these bodies freely and unencumbered by deterministic processes, as the supernaturalist dualists believe?

    (2) Are “we” an even less well-defined kind of soul-thingy that rides along in our bodies as a helpless observer who has to watch as the bodies are helplessly pushed here or there by deterministic processes, as outspoken incompatibilists have to believe for a sentence like “my neurons made the decision for me” to make sense?

    As far as I am concerned, the answer to both is a clear NO as opposed to unasking the question.

    The whole issue seems rather simple: Dualism in any meaningful sense is obviously false, as shown by the fact that purely physical or chemical damage can alter all our memories and behaviours. End of story. Yes, it is not clear to what degree our brains are deterministic because quantum effects collapse at that scale or to what degree there is stochasticity, but neither gives us the kind of Free Will that a libertarian or religious believer would be interested in, so redefining dualism into the trivial observation that our brains are complicated doesn’t appear very helpful.

    As for incompatibilism, a human makes a decision in the same sense that a car drives or that a pocket calculator calculates. To claim that humans don’t really make decisions because the neurons/genes/environmental influences have made the decision for them, or, as the present author does, that the decisions are therefore less than 100% volitional, is as misguided as saying that a car doesn’t drive because it is really the engine and the tires that do it, or saying that a pocket calculator doesn’t calculate because its microchip did it. The parts constitute the whole.

    Whether we call decision making Free Will or not is ultimately a semantic issue. In my native language “freiwillig” is simply the translation of English “voluntary”, so I at least don’t need Free Will to indicate anything more than the kind of non-coerced decision making that a frog or chicken is capable of.


  2. I have some difficulty parsing the arguments here; in particular I’m not entirely sure what the term “psychological determinism” is intended to mean, so the following might not be on point. Anyway, I’m strongly in favor of a psychological approach to free will. As Dennett and others have pointed out, the “folk” concept of free will is fundamentally incoherent, and as a result, philosophical treatments have a tendency to get thoroughly boggled. There is however a practical meaning for “freedom”: whatever it is, everybody wants it.

    I’ve tried to explicate that practical meaning in a recent blog post, “Free Will and the Psychology of Freedom”, The basic point is that our sense of freedom is largely a function of how our actions are motivated. We feel free when we are motivated by rewards; we feel unfree when our actions are motivated by punishment, restraint, or compulsion. We see determinism as antagonistic to free will because we perceive it as a form of compulsion.

    Let me note also that my blog post referenced in [8] also appeared in slightly modified form on the “Brains” blog, with extensive discussion, at


  3. I was expecting an explanation of what “psychological determinism” is, but I don’t think that ever happened. You said it’s a “mental counterpoint” to libertarian free will, but I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, since libertarianism is already a mental thesis (it makes a claim about our mental powers, after all.)

    In general, I can’t decipher what the central thesis or argument of this article is. I know the author thinks questions about free-will are somehow framed incorrectly and need to be “unasked”, but I still don’t see any problems with many traditional discussions of free will. For example:

    1) There are some cases where we hold people morally responsible for their actions, and others where we don’t. One factor (certainly not the only one) that often contributes to these discussions is the question of whether and to what extent the person committed the action freely, or deliberately, or “knew what she was doing”, etc. But what the heck do we mean by these things? What features of an action (or the agent who committed it, or the context in which it was committed) are we trying to pick out when we appeal to these concepts? This seems like a question that is both philosophically interesting and can have important practical consequences, and it’s what many traditional discussions of free-will are about.

    2) Even ignoring questions concerning moral responsibility, there’s clearly *some* kind of interesting difference between what’s going on when, say, I reflexively move my arms to protect my face from a punch, and when I carefully move my arm while playing a game of Jenga. It seems worthwhile not only to investigate the differences between these two kinds of cases at neurological/biological level, but also to think about how we *conceptualize* the differences between these two cases. The latter project is one of the things that traditional discussions of free-will, intentional action, and deliberation are about.

    Merely raising these questions doesn’t presuppose much of anything about the existence (or lack therof) of a “unitary self”, or dualism, or determinism. Nor do they presuppose that free-will isn’t a matter of degree (just as recognizing that some people are bald and some people aren’t bald doesn’t presuppose that baldness is a matter of degree.) So why, exactly, do these problems need to be unasked?
    The quote about understanding free-will as a collection of capacities to imagine future courses of action, make plans, deliberate amongst reasons, etc. seems like a very sensible way of approaching the two questions I posed above. But for some reason the author dismisses them without much of an explanation.


  4. >>Psychology has had a clear intersection with philosophy from the days of Hume, arguably the world’s first psychologist

    It’s certainly true that psychology has long been intertwined with philosophy, but I don’t think there’s any interesting sense in which Hume is the “world’s first psychologist.” He’s certainly not an *experimental* psychologist in the contemporary sense of the term. You can, of course, still call him a kind of psychologist if you like (since he was interested in the workings of the mind, the origins of concepts and ideas, the nature of perception and representation, the nature of human motivation and decision-making, etc.), but the same would apply to Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Locke (all of whom Hume openly borrowed heavily from), Hobbes, Mandeville, Descartes (who, by the way, had the nerve to look at actual brains and nervous systems), Aquinas, plenty of other medieval philosophers, and of course Plato and Aristotle. Just because Hume advertised himself as the “Newton of the mind” doesn’t mean he actually was.

    >>So far, part of what I am saying is that what’s actually happening in the human mind is far too complex to reduce to “free will.” It’s another instance where the human brain’s predilection for facile labeling of things leads us astray.In short, the phenomena of consciousness in general, and volition in particular are far too complex, and our understanding today far too limited, to cram into a particular philosophical system.

    You can apply this same exact argument to pretty much every other folk-psychological concept and you’ll end up a Churchland-like eliminativism. “What’s happening in the mind is far too complex to reduce to [belief] [desire], [perception], [memory], [imagination], [etc.]” This is, of course, a road some people are willing to go down, but I don’t think you recognize the wider implications of your own argument.


  5. I have to concur with others that it was a bit hard to understand exactly what the author was arguing for, which is not to say it wasn’t interesting.

    I’m probably much more on the side of psychological determinism on this issue and more specifically from the perspective of B. F. Skinner, where the sense of “freedom” is largely found under positive reinforcement and lack of freedom under punishment, control and coercion. Positive reinforcement leads to what we perceive as freedom but to the trained psychologists, it’s simply the more effective way of influencing someone’s behavior compared to aversive methods. We could also talk about more complex actions, including self-referential behavior but again, those can and are also trained and grown over time. So in this sense, I don’t see “freedom” in a libertarian sense showing up anywhere. The only way it would is if nothing in psychology added up, nothing predicted anything and no psychological techniques worked, which is obviously not the case.

    Ultimately though, the question should be about what difference we would have in our society if we went the free will versus psychological determinism route (and all the shades in between). This would mean we would have to think about questions of our justice system, morality and what we do in response to those situations.

    Thinking about it from a psychological perspective, I think the distinction relevant is aspects we can affect, through programs such as education, therapy and other supports, and things we cannot effect, which may require measures that restrict an individual (to prevent harm to others). Or put another way, we can influence actions we want to encourage and is possible for the person (i.e., jumping in a shallow pond to save a child) but not punish people for what is impossible (flying in the air to save a falling child, which humans obviously cannot do). So in these cases, the ability to respond is present (hence response-ability), we just have to set the conditions to increase the motivation and likelihood that such a response will occur.


  6. Iqvry and somewhat, all The wider these is that, per Donald Rumsfeld and plenty of wiser folks, is that there are plenty of “unknown unknowns” about consciousness in general, and free will in particular.

    As I said in an email to Massimo, the two brain projects, hype aside, should at least give us some ”known unknowns” to work with, instead, and therefore ask better, and different, questions. I nowhere said that questions of volition (or consciousness) were too difficult in general, or too difficult to reduce to some lower level in some ways. OTOH, I’ve always opposed “greedy reductionism.”

    Iqvry and Bill I thought I explained “psychological determinism” or “psychological constraint” enough, and well enough, but perhaps not.

    It’s simply that actions are usually determined or constrained to a degree (hence my percentages in examples!) by particular psychological background. Depending on the particular case at hand, said psychological background could be long-standing effects of child abuse or military PTSD, a divorce from my wife, or similar. Or, per Phineas Gage, a psychological state with a physiological cause. And, per Iqvry’s “collection of capacities,” I believe that mentioning case-by-case differences in degree of “constraint” vs. “freedom,” I’ve done just that.

    Bil Per Captain Kirk to Charlie X, though, there’s a million things we want that we don’t get.

    Alexander Regular readers here, I expected, would know that I’m a metaphysical naturalist, so I didn’t spell that out. Ergo, I don’t believe in either Points 1 or 2. And, I did say near the start of the essay that I’m a non-dualist, with more in my byline at the end.

    As for being a bit convoluted in the writing? Well, IMO, that’s part of the territory. I don’t see our state of knowledge here being as clean or as precise as others might.

    All This piece was on the NYT after I sent Massimo this essay. While it speaks about selfhood in general, and not free will in particular, I think it has some valuable parallel ideas about the possible evolutionary basis of some things we think about our “selves” that may, just may not necessarily be true.

    I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary … : namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.

    When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing … our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. … And there is no way for the brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong.

    That gets back to my first comment. There’s lots of “unknown unknowns” out there. Step 1 is accepting this and Step 2 is seeing some of them become “known unknowns.” To take Bill further, we probably still have fair-sized chucks of folk psychology that need at least substantial modifying, if not outright discarding. And “mu” is the right word to say to that.


  7. Hi SocraticGadfly,

    I don’t think it’s possible to discuss distinctions between compatibilism, libertarianism and so on without addressing the topic of physical determinism, especially if you want to dismiss it out of hand. The argument against determinism you link to on your blog doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and leaves me wondering if you really understand what physical determinism is. You understand what a deterministic computational process is, I assume. You can understand deterministic simulations of galaxy formation and so on. The idea that the universe itself is like such a simulation is not obviously incoherent. It may turn out to be incorrect (as argued by Marko Vojinovic on Scientia Salon), but only for esoteric empirical reasons (which I find unconvincing — I would very much like to see some quantum physicists peer review that article) and not because there is anything essentially wrong with the idea a priori.

    Regardless, even if you do find determinism to be implausible, that doesn’t mean you have to reject compatibilism. Compatibilism is indeed compatible with physical determinism, but it is also compatible with quantum indeterminism. Compatibilism is just the idea that we can make sense of human volition/free will without inextricably tying it to questions about determinism. It is often helpful to illustrate this point by discussing how free will would work in a deterministic “clockwork” universe, but compatibilism does not assume that physical determinism is the case.

    Indeed the compatibilism of Dennett, from which you seem to want to distance yourself, is essentially a way of saying “mu” to the question of (libertarian) free will versus determinism. I therefore cannot really understand how your position differs from that of standard compatibilists except that you have an unusual degree of disdain for determinism.

    Finally, I disagree quite strongly with you on the idea that we can distinguish between psychological determination and volition. Whether determinism is true or false, all human action would seem to be a combination of chance and lawful evolution of a chaotic and complex system. In other words, volition itself is psychologically determined, and the idea that there is any room for volition which is free from the influence of experience, biology or pure chance is in my view untenable.


  8. When a bell rings, Pavlov discovered that the dog’s digestive system sprang to attention. The free will is the one who rings the bell. But what if it was not an individual ringing the bell, but history itself? Would we be conscious of it?

    Of course the phenomenon of springing to attention is familiar to macho men seeing a beautiful woman in the distance. Conditioned reflexes are all over. But could it be that the exaggerated masculinity of those who spring to attention when seeing a woman, be itself a conditioned neural, glial, and neurohormonal system of sorts?

    It is well known that people learn to fake emotions and behaviors: homosexuals living in the closet have long done this. But not just them. I claim it’s all over the place. Even in the fascination with wine. So some will reach happiness only when they can drink a bit of alcohol, etc. This conditioning is cultural: Bacchus has been celebrated, and associated to wine, for millennia. A fundamental sensation, happiness has been subjugated to a cultural notion.

    Each nation has its crazes, its conditioned reflexes, its own notion of free will. Most of the minds are made from the outside, complete from ideas to emotions, to what to say in most situations encountered. And so it is, all over.

    But then what happens to fee will? Is it all about conditioned reflexes from elaborated systems of mood and thoughts, many of them culturally given?

    When called to exert free will, all what is happening is a cocktail of conditioned reflexes of long, and subconsciously established, systems of thoughts, emotions and moods. In other words, most people are just puppets from the genealogy of ideas, morals, moods, emotions, and conditioned reflexes.

    What’s Free Will?
    Is it what we observe when an Anglo-Saxon mind celebrates David Hume as the “first psychologist”? Let’s roll a quote from that great Anglo-Saxon genius. Here is David Hume:

    “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.”


  9. Just some notes, perhaps a better formulated comment later.

    1. First, the term “psychological determinism” did need better definition in the article itself. As refined in a later comment, it’s relationship to existing positions in the debate still seems somewhat unclear.

    2. The Libet experiments really have extremely limited use; beyond demonstrating against dualism, they don’t say much. The notion that the brain acts before conscious decision making is hardly new. It was James who famously posited that when I meet a bear in the woods, I first run, and only then feel fear. And any theory of unconscious brain activity assumes that the brain operates independently of conscious decision making. It should be noted in passing that such a notion occurred to theorists of psychology in the Buddhist schools long ago.

    3. The free will/determinism debate is very old; I find it amusing that some think today the matter can be settled simply because we have better machines.
    3.a. One of the problems has to do with a matter of definition. Scientists have to presume definitions in order to construct models and experiments; but these definitions have to be developed in social and philosophical discourse, because the nature of the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘determinism’ – personal or otherwise – tends to change in historically contingent social contexts.
    3.b. Some contemporary atheists have adopted a strict determinist position partly because they feel that this may be used as a body blow to theism. That’s not true; the debate among theists over the problem of free will vs. determinism (and its related notion of pre-destination) has been going on since the Church Fathers. There are Christian libertarians, yes; but fundamentalism is actually deterministic at its roots (only god’s grace can release individuals from it), and mainstream Catholicism has long been compatibilist. Anti-dualism certainly attacks the notion of the ‘soul,’ but determinism just in itself is not going to be a major game changer here.
    3.c. A major problem is that we experience our being in the world both deterministically, as felt impulses (‘jeez, could I use a drink right now!’), and as a series of choices to be freely determined (‘Scotch or bourbon?’ ‘Actually, I’d like a shot of rye’). Any strong position in this debate must account for our very real empirical experience, or it will seem to be an imposition.

    4. Any convincing theory of mind has to account for two things: innovation, i.e., how we formulate new ideas, and radical changes in thinking – i.e., how we change are minds. Only compatibilist thinkers have come up with reasonable arguments on these processes. The determinist position is especially weak here: simply to say that Einstein came up with the theory of relativity because physical forces led him to this explains nothing. Libertarian arguments seem stronger, but their basic premises are impoverished, since not accounting for the sometimes chaos in which we live, nor for the sometimes chaos of our own thoughts.


  10. One big problem with using the term “psychological determinism” is that the term has already been used copiously to refer to a specific concept. If you are attempting to coin a new term, then you shouldn’t reuse an existing one. Make a new term. Alternatively, if you are really describing conventional psychological determinism, then there is no need to couch it to sound as if you are coining a new term as opposed to merely presenting or discussing an existing idea:
    “…we always act upon our greatest drive.”
    “we always act according to our ‘strongest’ or ‘best’ reason.”
    “Psychological determinism can mean that humans must act according to reason, but it can also be synonymous with some sort of Psychological egoism. The latter is the view that humans will always act according to their perceived best interest.”


  11. When I think of Hume’s notions about national character, I wonder how a philosopher concerned with the problem of induction could be so sure there are national characters? Or how a skeptical temperament would allow such sweeping generalizations.

    “To claim that humans don’t really make decisions because the neurons/genes/environmental influences have made the decision for them, or, as the present author does, that the decisions are therefore less than 100% volitional, is as misguided as saying that a car doesn’t drive because it is really the engine and the tires that do it, or saying that a pocket calculator doesn’t calculate because its microchip did it. The parts constitute the whole.” But it does make to sense to say that a sleepwalker didn’t choose to walk, or that a green soldier didn’t choose to panic, or that a child didn’t choose to wet the bed, or that a person hallucinating enemies and fighting them didn’t choose to kill, or that a man sexually aroused by another man chose his reaction. Is it really rational to say that a person who makes a face upon tasting a friend’s cooking chose to be rude, or that someone unhappy with their job chose a bad attitude, or that someone feeling sad chose to be depressed, or that someone who didn’t quit drinking or biting their nails is just lying when they said they couldn’t choose otherwise?

    I thought the Libet experiment showed that the conscious decision to act was the outcome of a neuronal process that simultaneously entrained a series of neural changes that led to the physical motion, on the one hand, and on the other the conscious awareness of the choice. But as far as I’m concerned, it is not news that conscious thinking is the product of neuronal activity. There are no thoughts without a definite pattern of neuron activity. I believe this kind of physical determinism of mind to be established fact. I’m not sure what the OP means by psychological determinism.

    But if it means the ability of the rational mind to quell unchosen desires or impulses in pursuit of a predetermined plan aimed at the consciously chosen ultimate aims? Then I can only say that the notion that desires and impulses can be free repressed is nonsense. These kinds of acts of “will” are costly. The conscious cultivation of habit, such as training troops to prevent panic, is a very difficult business. So far as I can tell, the phrase “free” will acts largely to justify blaming others for their supposed lapses. Compatibilism is formulated to justify the arbitrary assignation of personal moral responsibility as convention dictates. Thus, a child who gets up out of their seat in first grade can be deemed either as misbehaving, or as unable to sit too long, as the prevailing opinion holds.


  12. As well as the “free willer of the gaps” there is also the “non free willer of the gaps”. No side can claim to be the default.

    The “non free willer” seems to be claiming that most people have significantly false beliefs about volition. In order to prosecute that claim they need to:

    1. Be explicit about what they claim this false belief is
    2. Demonstrate that most people do, in fact, hold that belief
    3. Demonstrate why the belief is wrong
    4. Find out what really is the case

    As far as I can see, either 1,2 and 3 can be done now or else the non-free-willer is simply making an unsupported claim.

    4 will require the input of future scientific understanding, however it is a little difficult to know where this scientific understanding will come from and when.

    I am sceptical that evolutionary psychology will ever get beyond the stage of interesting conjecture, but even if it does then I am not sure that the knowledge it will provide will be on any benefit in the discussion of free will.

    Perhaps the greater understanding of the mechanics of the brain will help. Whatever happened before in neuroscience, there is evidence that they are pulling themselves out of what will probably become known as their “dead salmon phase”.

    I don’t know how long that would take. Those who are creating a functional model of nematode with about 500 neurons are now saying that it might take another twenty years to produce a functional model of even that brain. Not even the nematode singularity will meet Mr Kurzweil’s deadline, it seems. How much longer would it take to do even a mouse? From my perspective it seems as though useful answers from neuroscience will not come in my lifetime, even if I live another 40 years, which is optimistic.

    So, for now, it seems as though the only business that can be done is to clarify 1, 2 and 3 above. These really have not been done. People who talk about the importance of doing good science rely on really badly designed surveys and draw definite conclusions about a claim that they have not defined with any rigour.


  13. It seems to me that too much is made of the concept of self. I never could understand Dennett’s point when he is talking of Cartesian Theaters and multiple drafts and so on and so forth. I can define what I mean by ‘self’ quite easily, the ‘self’ is that which feels pain, or pleasure, that which experiences colour etc, and that which understands. We don’t really need any more than that, we might have vague ideas beyond that, but why do we need to explain vague ideas? When people talk about the “illusion of self”, that makes no sense to me.

    Am I really having the illusion of being the sort of thing that can have an illusion, when in fact I am really not the sort of thing that can have an illusion at all? In my definition, the self is that which has the illusion.

    We can start with this fairly straightforward definition and use it as a basis for more understanding of what that self is.

    Some people will say that my definition of “self” is “unscientific”. But this seems to be a current misunderstanding in philosophy (for example Ladyman and Ross get this completely wrong in “Every Thing Must Go”). Science always starts with “unscientific” definitions and works towards scientific definitions. Einstein gives a good account of what a good scientific definition is in his book “Relativity” in his section on the Special Theory under the heading “The idea of time in physics”. He defines what “simultaneous” means partly in terms of what “at the same time” means in the observer language. If we could not accept the meaning of “at the same time” in the observer language as being something in itself and apart from its scientific meaning (as Ladyman and Ross insist), then we could never arrive at the scientific definition of “simultaneous”.

    So if there is to be a scientific account of what the “self” is, then I think that “that which feels pain” is a good starting point. If science cannot begin with that definition then what definition can science begin with?

    (Second post for my own tracking)


  14. Disagreeable Assigning percentages to psychological control vs. (theoretically) free action on a case-by-case basis (in the samples) should indicate that I believe in “combinations.”

    Disagreeable, EJ and all: If it helps to see “free will” and “psychological determinism” as the two “ingredients” mixing under “volition,” and that helps any confusion, I’m fine with that. EJ, I otherwise agree that definitions have been somewhat shifting here.

    Keith Wiley IMO only adds to that by linking to a Wikipedia page that’s actually a stub, and to the degree it contains information, doesn’t square with not only my understanding but that of many others. Google shows many definitions that don’t relate to your understanding. Per EJ, this is why I used “psychological constraint” as an alternative term. Psychological determinism need not be associated with Freudian-related ideas or anything close, and in fact, before now, I had never heard of your definition. Here’s a succinct, non-Freudian definition, that doesn’t reduce all of psychology to “our greatest drive”: Anyway, per something like that, I’m not inventing anything new; the only limitation of that definition is an adult physiological action (Phineas Gage) with ongoing psychological effects isn’t included. Here’s another definition, from a philosophy of encyclopedia, which is at least in the same neighborhood as me, again, and far from your neighborhood: Also non-Freudian or similar, Sartre talked about psychological determinism in “Being and Nothingness.”

    EJI don’t think Libet’s findings are that insignificant. Plus, there’s been plenty of follow-up on them; some research indicate that “vetos” aren’t so conscious either; see the Wikipedia link on neuroscience of free will.

    Robin Well put, on both comments. That’s part of the “mu,” is getting past old ideas of “default positions.” You’re also right about timetables. I have said before, here, at Scientifically Speaking, and my blog, that neuroscience is in the Early Bronze Age. To the degree there’s legitimate science behind ev psych, it may still be Neolithic. That link I posted in my first response kind of gets at your other thoughts on “self.”

    As we do clarify 1-3 (we hope) and make progress on 4, I think, per Hofstadter, since I referenced him already, that we will find out the “self” has a lot of feedback loops, some of them tangled, and some of the tangled ones permanently tangled. Beyond that, a fetus has gill arches and an adult human has semi-vestigal organs; why wouldn’t the human mind possibly be somewhat the same? And, to take Goedel in an informal way, we may ultimately face some self-referential issues that limit the precision or depth of our research.

    Look at this as analytic philosophy saying that our findings may be ultimately fuzzy, that we can only clarify so far. Some of those “unknown unknowns” may remain that way.

    StevenJohnson You’re right on the “costliness.” Things like advertising and marketing are premised in part on most people not wanting to regularly, consciously, battle subconscious urges.


  15. I agree with Disagreeable Me that you cannot simply dismiss the physical determinism problem without giving reasons, that elephant is still in the room.

    But from my point of view I would have to see answers to my points 1 and 2 above before that was even an issue. We need to clarify just what exactly is the disagreement between the libertarian, the compatibilist and the incompatibilists. We need to find out exactly who believes the propositions we claim are fallacious.

    But we can at least preview the reasons that people consider physical determinism to be a problem. I consider this in terms of a toy dualist system. I program a world in which everything acts according to a deterministic set of laws called physics X. I have beings in this world who have brains which act according to physics X and with these brains they view their environment and make decisions.

    So I introduce dualism into this by giving an actor in this environment a ‘soul’ outside of physics X. I put a module in its brain and let this module communicate with another computer, one which does not behave according to physics X. This computer can get information from the sense organs of the actor and then to make decisions about what to do and when and then feed these decisions back to the actor. The only constraint it has of physics X is that it must make those decisions in real physics X time. So for quick decisions it must act quickly, but in all other aspects it is ‘free’ from physics X.

    Considering this a good model of dualism with respect to the laws of physics X I now make a new adjustment. I replace the communicating module in the brain of the actor with some code (implemented on a machine that acts according to the laws of physics X) which can run just the same algorithm as was running on the separate computer and feed the results back into its behaviour, just as the ‘dualist’ version did.

    My actor is now back completely under the laws of physics X and yet it is functionally equivalent to the ‘dualist’ actor whose decisions were free of the laws of physics X.

    By analogy I claim that even if I am completely a product of a deterministic physical law, I could still have decision making processes which are functionally equivalent to an agent which is not subject to those laws.

    So it is not enough to say that libertarian free will is incompatible with determinism, you have to identify exactly the aspects of a free will belief that are incompatible with physical determinism, why it is incompatible, and who exactly holds such beliefs.

    Because, as I always point out, it is pointless to argue endlessly about a belief that few people actually hold.

    (Post 3)


  16. Hi SocraticGadfly,

    >Assigning percentages to psychological control vs. (theoretically) free action on a case-by-case basis (in the samples) should indicate that I believe in “combinations.”

    I get that. But you are combining “psychological determinism” with “volition”. How does the volition part work? What I am saying is that all volition *is* psychologically determined by a combination of brain state arising from experience and biology and random chance outside our control. By treating “volition” as a separate kind of explanation from “psychological determinism”, you would seem to be reintroducing a kind of libertarianism into your view (and libertarianism is not compatible with naturalism, despite what some — i.e. Labnut — might say).

    What I think you may be getting at is what compatibilists such as Dennett would describe as varying degrees of moral responsibility. Someone with Tourettes is not to be held morally responsible for yelling obscenities at children in the same way as someone who is merely an asshole, yet both behaviours are equally a product of factors which are ultimately outside of the control of the offender, i.e. biology, experience and chance. Nevertheless, we see a difference in the cause of the behaviours and we want to rationalise this in some way. One way which I think fails is to separate “determined” behaviour from “volitional” behaviour, and it fails because if we understood the way the asshole’s brain is wired we would see the behaviour is no less determined than the behaviour of the Tourettes sufferer.

    We need other criteria to determine how morally responsible we should hold an agent to be. To my mind, chief among these is how likely the agent is to be influenced by the consequences of their actions. Negative consequences to scaring children are likely to influence or moderate an asshole’s behaviour — if he gets a warning from the police for disturbing the peace he may be less likely to offend in future. Negative consequences will not influence a Tourettes sufferer’s behaviour (at least it will not grant him the ability to moderate his behaviour) although it may cause him to avoid situations where he is likely to offend. This latter consequence may be desirable to the parents of the children, but it is quite unfortunate for the Tourettes sufferer as it would make him a voluntary outcast from society. If we don’t want this result we should not hold people with Tourettes to be morally responsible for their actions.

    So, in conclusion, we should base judgements about moral responsibility not only on how the perpetrators will respond to or fear punishment, but on the consequences for society of implementing these norms. In my view, consequentialism, broadly applied, is therefore the proper basis on which decisions about moral responsibility should be made, and the metaphysics of the fundamental causal nature of volition should be left out of it.


  17. Hi Socratic,

    … lest anybody get the idea I am talking about physical determinism., which I don’t consider tenable.

    Like DM I read your cited blog post, but don’t see where it presents an argument against physical determinism.

    The starting point for any discussion should be that a brain’s decisions are caused by the physical state of the system at the time of the decision (the burden of proof is very much on anyone arguing for anything else).

    There is then a strong argument that this process is sufficiently deterministic over sufficient lengths of time. The point is that brains are hugely expensive in evolutionary terms (taking large amounts of energy; forcing human babies to be born essentially premature, and with child-birth risks to the mother; forcing long childhoods with much need for nurturing, etc). Thus they would only have evolved if there is a strong deterministic link between the genes that program large brains and the resulting decisions that the brain makes. If a brain’s decisions were essentially dice throwing (or anything else unrelated to the physical genes) then natural selection would have no traction to evolve large brains. Thus the system needs to be sufficiently deterministic over decades-long timescales.

    I would agree with Marko Vojinovic that ultimately, in the long run, quantum indeterminacy and deterministic chaos combine to produce an indeterministic system, but in a local sense — over sufficient time — it has to be sufficiently deterministic.

    Thus, the starting point for any of these “free will” discussions needs to be a physically deterministic brain (for all relevant intents and purposes) — the burden of proof is very much on anyone arguing for anything else.

    That means that we have “free will” in the same sense that (though to a greater extent than) aircraft autopilots and chess-playing computers have it. (Human aversion to that idea is really just an intuitional problem rather than a real one!)

    From there, Dennett-style compatibilism seems to me a coherent account that satisfactorily answers the various “free will” issues.

    Hi ejwinner

    And any theory of unconscious brain activity assumes that the brain operates independently of conscious decision making.

    Why would these be independent? The decision-making would be the same process. The “conscious” part of it would simply be those aspects of the decision-making process (likely, fairly limited aspects) that are reported to the consciousness.

    Only compatibilist thinkers have come up with reasonable arguments on these processes. The determinist position is especially weak here:…

    That’s a weird thing to say, since the “compatibilist” position and the “determinist” position are the same thing.


  18. SocraticGadfly,

    See, this is where we have to disagree. I’d say that if we sort the definitions out and put the finger on the problem it is actually quite straightforward. See also below.


    The free will/determinism debate is very old; I find it amusing that some think today the matter can be settled simply because we have better machines.

    I would even turn it on the head: I find it silly that some think today that the matter has been settled by brain scans and Libet experiments when really it was rather trivially settled a long time ago by merely thinking about it.

    There are two ways in which something can happen: either it happens due to a cause (determinism) or it happens without cause (randomness or stochasticity). Because one is the negation of the other, that already exhausts the available options.

    Now using a dualist/libertarian view of Free Will, we immediately see the problem, for if an action is caused the actor isn’t Free (in the incompatibilist sense), and if an action is random it isn’t Willed by the actor. And therefore the argument presumably developed in the above essay that one could have 30% determinism and 70% randomness doesn’t help either because neither the first nor the latter provides dualist/libertarian Free Will.

    What the dualist or libertarian wants is a little soul sitting in the body and steering it along while not being influenced in its character and virtues by the cause-and-effect of the natural world, because then they can conclude that the evils of the world or the unfair outcomes of the free market are the individual’s fault and not the creator god’s or the market’s. However, that only pushes the problem back by one step because the soul likewise either follows some predictable, deterministic patterns or it behaves randomly.

    The whole idea of dualist or libertarian Free Will is recognised as incoherent the moment we realise that random and non-random are the only options there are. No brain scans are needed, and surely no technologies that still have to be developed. It was all as clear 2,500 years ago as it is now.

    Another useful thing that Hume pointed out, by the way, is that no matter what they claim as an intellectual exercise nobody really in practice believes in Libertarian Free Will, as demonstrated by the fact that everybody expects their fellow humans to behave in predictable ways. If somebody really believed that people’s actions were independent of their genes, experiences and suchlike, they would have to hide under a blanket at home because they could not predict with any degree of confidence whether their best friend or own mother is likely to murder them today.


  19. As near as I can tell, people who believe in libertarian free will are Legalists of some kind. Precisely because any individual might at any moment harm others for their personal benefit, it is absolutely vital that there be a functional system of punishments to maintain order. People who choose to obey the law will be unharmed. (The ever present danger of anarchy means however that the laws must be enforced vigorously and punishments meted out without hesitation to maintain the deterrent effect, which implies that errors are nonetheless good consequences…perhaps even more effective as a deterrent to the lawless souls.) They believe in external compulsion as a rational act of government. There will always be freedom of thought, therefore there is no fundamental objection to the unlimited nature of the state’s power over individuals.

    Historically most societies seem to assume individual responsibility as a matter of course: Of course individuals are responsible, and liable to reward and punishment for their choices in complying (or not) with custom. Free will is the justification for the social sanctions. Predestinarians don’t believe in free will, but they openly avow supernatural sanction for reward and punishment. Prosperity is the visible sign of God’s favor, etc. Despite Marko Vijinovic, I don’t think there are any determinists who haven’t heard of deterministic chaos or quantum mechanics. But as has been pointed out, chance is not will, free or otherwise.

    Psychologically, I suppose free will is attractive for those who feel empowered. And those who feel powerless, either in the face of social conditions or in the grip of their own emotions, are indoctrinated to feel guilt. Being fat is simply a matter of moral weakness, for instance.

    Perhaps the true question is whether the love of wisdom means one should show how what is, is right? Or whether the love of wisdom means one should show how what is, may not be right?


  20. Some “converted” Canadian Muslims crush, and shoot Canadians. Do they have free will? Or are they just Qur’an programmed machines?

    Quran (2:216) – “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.”

    Quran (3:56) – “As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.”

    Quran (3:151) – “Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority”

    Quran (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

    OK, I stop here with Qur’an machine’s quotes, because this comment is not about Islam, but about Free Will.

    The preceding makes it clear that whoever really believes textually and literally in what’s written in the Qur’an ought to march into the Parliament in Ottawa, and destroy the disbelief there, to gather the vast reward.

    And the question is: do this people have Free Will?

    The modern debate about Free Will has not been about that. It has been about “gratuitous acts” [actes gratuits]. Modern brain scanning techniques have brought a twist on that: the launching of an act is preceded by unconscious brain preparations.

    That is totally unsurprising. The brain is like an immense, giant machine, with millions of programs and preparations running simultaneously.
    At least, we know this now.

    For example the latest Nobel in Biology was attributed for the discovery of tiny hexagonal networks of neurons which act like microscopic Geostationary Positioning Systems. Such circuitry is active continuously, to provide a sense of place. It influences consciousness, and thus Free Will.

    The gross racist quote I gave from whom some Anglo-Saxons call the “first psychologist”, David Hume, brings the same question about Free Will.

    Notice that it does not just imprint offensive notions about “negroes”, but also offensive emotions. And by “offensive” I mean inducing attack.

    That anti-human Hume’ notion of sub-humanity sprang from the greed of gross exploitation: having armies of slaves overseas made many in Western Europe extremely wealthy. But in that it does not differ from the Qur’an. We know from the Hadith (a book gathering all what was said about the life of Muhammad by direct witnesses) that the context of the very first (2; 216) quote is that Muhammad the Prophet, then Master of Medina, was trying to convince his followers to go attack and raid some caravans.

    So what’s Free Will if we are just machines programmed, emotionally and logically, from the outside? If any, Free Will, has to incorporate the impact, the struggle, one is having feeding one’s brain with seriously, strenuously examined data. It is exactly what parrots do not have.


  21. Coel,
    “Why would these be independent?”
    You read this sentence against itself; I am noting the naturalist truism, that consciousness is dependent on brain activity, but brain activity is not dependent on consciousness.

    “That’s a weird thing to say”
    My point is not against all forms of determinism, but strict physicalist determinism (SPD). For SPD to strengthen its argument, it would have to provide a discrete description of the physical process by which innovative thinking occurs – a Libet experiment targeted at mapping and measuring brain processes occurring in a physicist like Einstein prior to his elucidation of the theory of relativity would be a good start.

    I didn’t have space for it originally, but another problem has to do with the processes leading to our change of mind. In much SPD discussions I have seen (and I admit not widely read in the technical literature, only more common discussions), I find that SPD advocates fall back on what are really social determinist arguments – how the human organism adapts to its social environment. I have no problem with this, being something of a social determinist myself, but I would like acknowledgement that this is where the discussion is going. However, it should be noted that social determinist theories have a different claim over our ability to think against the determinant factors, and thus are more adaptable to compatabilism. (Just to clarify, what the OP is calling ‘psychological determinism’ is a phenomenon accounted for in many social determinist theories.)

    Rather than build a strong argument about that here, let me just point out that Dewey’s experimentalism is actually dependent on the rigorous social determinism of George Herbert Mead. Social conditioning fractures at the point of what we now call ‘cognitive dissonance’ – confronting moments where the explanatory power of prior conditioning falls apart. Dewey has larger argument is for construction of a society (and its philosophical underpinnings) that maximizes the possibility of innovative thought and changes of mind.

    The point is that – without denying some level of biological or physical determinism – social determinism, and its implicit compatibilism, seems the safer course here.

    I understand the claim of SPD enthusiasts that not only free will but compatibilism are basically efforts to find blame for socially unacceptable behavior; unfortunately, this claim is based on humanistic principles that cannot originate in SPD; and furthermore, need not depend on SPD. It is entirely possible to deny blame-based responsibility theory without recourse to SPD.

    My own sense is that philosophy is an attempt to find the territory between what is and what ought to be – which science cannot now adequately map.

    I wanted to say, finally, that I agree that the free will/determinism debate is to a large extent “mu,” partly for some of the reasons you state, but also for reasons that have become clear in this discussion. It just doesn’t seem to be a debate that can reach a conclusion (although the discussion of the various positions can raise interesting problematics).


  22. The difficulties that surround the intersection of the concepts of morality and free will strike me as the products of a classic sort of philosophical mistake that is just begging for a Wittgensteinian intervention.

    At one level I am inclined to invoke one of the central ideas of “On Certainty”: namely, that the tacit presumption of agency constitutes a kind of hinge proposition in the language game of morals — the chief characteristic of hinge propositions being that while they themselves cannot be rationally justified, they play a framing role in the justification of any number of propositions that make up the particular language game in question (in this case, that of morals) and thus, have to be taken as givens, if we are to engage in that discourse.

    Of course, this is entirely consistent with the main allegation of the hard determinist — let’s call him the Skinnerian — who suggests that the entire framework of morality rests on what is essentially a fiction, one that ought to be scrapped.

    But this ignores the second level of the Wittgensteinian analysis, which I am inclined to invoke. The moral framework is one at whose heart lies the appeal to rules, and one of the things that Wittgenstein, more than anyone, has taught us, is to be very careful in how we understand rules. The mainline conception of the relationship of agency and morals is one of those rare instances in which what Hume would have referred to as “the opinion of the vulgar” coincides entirely with that of the typical philosopher and especially, the philosopher in the Analytic tradition: namely, that “morality” refers to a set of rules, which we must freely and antecedently will as the cause of our actions, if those actions are to be deemed moral. This commits us not only to the existence of a set of rules — what could those be, and where could they come from? — but to a conception of agency, one that…well…good luck in giving a rational reconstruction of *that*.

    If we understand the Wittgensteinian account of rules, however, we will immediately recognize the mistake involved in this analysis and in the commitments to which it binds us. It is an understanding that was echoed effectively — and perhaps, with greater clarity — in the account of competent performance that Gilbert Ryle gives us in his essential paper, “Knowing How and Knowing That.” At its core, the mistake lies in thinking that the rule in question — whatever it is — functions prescriptively, rather than descriptively — that it *precedes* action, rather than following it.

    Moral rules — like any rules — describe the behavior we are inclined to accept. It is because we don’t accept theft, assault, and other forms of predation that they are immoral, not because they have the prior characteristic of wrongness, a characteristic that we grasp and towards which we oppose our will.

    The same holds for ascriptions of agency. It is because we ascribe responsibility under certain circumstances and not others that the relevant actions count as “free” and “coerced”, not because they have some antecedent quality, like freedom from physical laws or some other such nonsense. It is because we are prepared to say of a grown man, who, with no discernible impediment, engages in foul and abusive language, that his behavior is unacceptable that renders his actions “free,” and it is because we are not prepared to say the same of a boy, diagnosed with Tourette’s, who engages in identical behavior, that his actions count as “coerced.”

    Some may want to say that this just *is* the Skinnerian position, but that would be a misunderstanding. The Skinnerian essentially *agrees* with the libertarian — *if* moral descriptions are legitimately ascribed, then human beings must have free will. He simply disagrees as to whether they are legitimately ascribed (because he thinks there is no free will). The Wittgensteinian, in contrast, rejects the very conception of legitimate ascription, presumed by both.

    (Massimo — I know this is way-long. Could you simply treat it as counting for *two* comments?)


  23. I am programmed to comment on some of the above, but will use my free will to continue what I was saying 🙂

    As I see it, the claim of Libertarianism consists of two claims about our volitions:

    1. An authorship claim, and
    2. A substitutability claim.

    The claim with respect to authorship is that the ‘agent’ (or ‘self’ or deliberative process) is something which can operate, at least to some extent, independently of the physics – that is the ‘free’ part. This is perhaps the ‘psychological determinism’ suggested in the main article.

    I argued in the previous post that this would not require a supernatural soul, or dualism or ‘little miracles’, it does not even require indeterminism.. If the deliberative process can be functionally equivalent to a deliberative process that is independent of physical laws, then that deliberative process is functionally independent of physical laws. I have demonstrated that this is possible and if more space was available I think I could argue convincingly that our deliberative process are sometimes like this, in some circumstances.

    The substitutability claim is this ‘When I am contemplating a future course of action, there is more than one course of action that I am capable of taking. In my last post I will unpack this further.

    However I would like to comment on the alleged dichotomy. Determinism is not free will. Randomness is not free will. But can there be a process which is neither random, nor deterministic? I say yes. If there is process which contains deterministic and random elements, but the random elements are part of some reliable effect of the system then the system, viewed as a whole, is neither random, nor deterministic (using ‘deterministic in the sense of exactly one next state).

    For example we can have a system, partly deterministic but with random elements which can solve particular kinds of problems. Such a system would be predictable in the sense that it will find a good or even maximal resolution to the problem. But it will be unpredicable in that we cannot predict beforehand what that solution will be.

    Can a conscious state be such a system? Yes, because if Naturalism is true then any conscious state is exactly some subset of neural processing and such a subset can be neither deterministic, nor random as described above.

    Whether or not it is, I don’t know, but it is not ruled out, as some suggest.

    (Post 4, I think)


  24. Aravis, okay, I let it pass this time. But in general I prefer shorter comments, if need be articulated across a number of posts. Cheers.


  25. Aravis,

    I think I agree with most of what you say here, which surprises me as we seem to disagree on moral realism. I suppose it’s not clear whether you are just expressing Wittgenstein’s views or whether you also agree with them. Here you seem to state that what we call morals is just what humans find acceptable, a view I agree with and which is not consistent with moral realism as I conceive of it. I think it is legitimate to ascribe moral responsibility even though I am not a moral realist, because I think doing so leads to a better society. But I think the non-existence of libertarian free will does mean that it is important to remember that punishment is not a good in its own right but only as a means to achieving that better society.


  26. Robin,

    I think you’re wrong about the two claims of libertarianism, since those claims can also be made by compatibilists. For compatibilists, we are the authors of our actions because we consist of the proximate deterministic processes that produce those actions. A computer program that decides based on data to buy shares is the author of that action (not the *ultimate* author but then why should we need *ultimate* authorship?). The substitutability claim is also upheld, by the argument that we are capable of considering many possible alternative actions, and were we in the same situation again we might choose differently. Again, a computer program might consider various alternative actions in a game of chess. Perhaps given the same data it might even choose differently sometimes as the result of a pseudorandom number check. In any case, there is no force outside itself that limits its ability to choose one of those options. The selection from the options available to it is made by it itself (again, because it consists of the set of deterministic processes that make that choice).

    The claim of libertarianism is that our actions are neither determined nor random (nor even some combination). Our actions can only ultimately be explained with concepts such as temptation, virtue, moral character and so on. We are free in a way that no machine could ever be, even if that machine were a convincing simulacrum of a human (passing the Turing Test, responding appropriate to threats and promises, punishment and rewards). This is usually regarded by most philosophers as incoherent and tends to be tied into supernatural concepts such as the soul.

    I disagree with you about resolving the dichotomy between determinism and indeterminism. Mixing determinism with indeterminism yields a system which is indeterministic. On the other hand, any system which can only have one result (e.g. finding the optimal solution to a problem) but which we cannot tell in advance is a deterministic system (at least with respect to the final result — that path it takes to get there could be indeterministic). An indeterministic system but with predictable tendencies is still an indeterministic system. A die roll predictably yields a number between 1 and 6, but that doesn’t necessarily make it deterministic.


  27. Let’s look at the substitutability thing again.

    I am sitting at my computer with two draft emails on screen. A product which I am going to sell turns out to be very dangerous and will cause great suffering in my customers and staff.

    But my knowledge about it is deniable.

    One email will make the problem go away, I will get rich, those people will suffer and there will be no comeback to me.

    The other email will alert the relevant authorities, those people will not suffer but I will become very poor.

    If I am not a Libertarian (even a compatibilist) then I can reason thus “I want to be rich and I don’t want those people to suffer, but I can click the button that makes me rich, safe in the knowledge that there was never anything I could have done to prevent the suffering..

    “Because, if I click it, then it is true that there was never anything I could have done.

    “I will feel bad when I read about their suffering, but only in the way someone unconnected with the business will feel bad when they read about it in the newspapers because it was not my fault.. ‘What a pity’, I will say, ‘if only there was something I could have done. But I couldn’t. Their fate was already sealed.”

    If Libertarianism is false then I would not be rationalising my action, I would be perfect right.

    If I was a Libertarian I would say “I want to be rich and I don’t want those people to suffer. If I click the button that makes me rich I will do so in the knowledge that I could have sent the other email, alerted the authorities and prevented the suffering. When I hear of their suffering I will feel bad knowing that I could have prevented this, but chose instead to get rich”.

    The Libertarian view is the commonsense view, and the commonsense view may be wrong.

    But there is nothing whatsoever to compel us to believe it is wrong, not even if Naturalism is the case.

    Those who say otherwise do so without properly defining what they mean by the term or saying just why they consider it impossible. They use the false assumption that it would require dualism, a supernatural soul of ‘little miracles’ and they don’t consider all the mathematical possibilities that might be part of this amazing brain of ours.

    Those experiments which purport to show we have no free will – if I had time I could say plenty about them but I don’t. Suffice to say for now that Libet was a believer in free will.

    But we don’t know how the brain works, we don’t know what consciousness is and we don’t even know how some basic aspects of physics work. It is way, way premature to be asserting such confident (or even cautious) conclusions about our volition.

    PS, DM, the dichotomy is between determinism and randomness.


  28. DM:

    There is nothing incompatible between moral realism and a Wittgensteinian philosophy. Realism and normativity–and agency–are built into the language game of morals. I made a similarly Wittgensteinian argument for metaphysical realism, in Philosophical Investigations, some years ago.

    The problem is that philosophers traditionally want to ask the “Yes, but what is there *really*?” sorts of questions and these are almost always a mistake. To ask whether something *really* exists outside of its framework — or to ask whether the framework is *really* true — is to ask what Carnap would call “external questions” — which, to my mind are essentially ill-formed.

    You can’t play tennis, unless you accept the “fault” rule for serves. (Any serve which lands outside the service box is a fault.) But if you ask whether balls landing outside the box are *really* faults — and whether faults *really* exist — irrespective of tennis, the answer is not so much “no” as it is “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

    Similarly you can’t engage in moral discourse without ascribing agency. But if you start asking the *really* question — i.e. is there *really* agency, irrespective of the frameworks in which its ascription plays an essential role — then I am going to give the same sort of answer.


  29. Hi Aravis,

    > There is nothing incompatible between moral realism and a Wittgensteinian philosophy.

    Obviously you are more informed than me, but it seems to me that you are interpreting “moral realism” unusually. I want to distinguish here between the use of “realism” in two different contexts. In mathematical realism, one asserts that mathematical objects exist (and usually that all mathematical objects exist). Mathematical realism is therefore about the existence of all possibilities in the space.

    In moral realism however, the contention is usually that moral statements have only one truth value, and the set of such judgements can be taken to arise from one true “correct” moral system. Moral realism is therefore about the negation of all possibilities in the space of moral systems bar one — the system which is deemed to be correct. To bring it back to your tennis analogy, singles tennis and doubles tennis have different rules about where the ball may land without causing a fault. Moral realism, in my view, is akin to the assertion that singles tennis is true tennis, that the rules of single tennis identify what is “really” a fault and the rules of doubles tennis are incorrect. If you accept both systems of rules as equally valid, this looks very much like moral relativism, where different moral systems in different cultures or times are said to come to different but equally valid conclusions about morality.

    If your view is that moral statements (like game rules), are meaningful only within the context of moral systems (or games), and that various moral systems (and games) exist with no one particular system (game) being privileged above any other, then I wholeheartedly agree with you, but this is not moral realism as I have come to understand the term and as I believe most others do also.

    Hi Robin,

    > If Libertarianism is false then I would not be rationalising my action, I would be perfect right.

    In my view it’s not about whether you would be correct or incorrect. I don’t practice such rationalisations because I am not a bad person. If I hurt someone I will feel guilty because that is how I am wired, just as I feel pain when I stub my toe. My goal is not only to maximise my own well-being but to do so in a compassionate manner with consideration for the well-being of others. Your fictional self, with consideration only for himself, is a psychopath. Disbelieving in free will does not make one so. Most people have the desire to be good and so they will make choices that seem to them to be consistent with this self-image whether they believe in free will or not.

    > PS, DM, the dichotomy is between determinism and randomness.

    I think I’m taking “random” to be essentially synonymous with indeterministic. How do you mean the term? Besides, I think the important dichotomy *is* between determinism and indeterminism.

    That’s my fifth post. I can follow up by email if necessary.


  30. I’m finding some of the comments here very interesting and will need to re-read and follow-up on them. Just thought I would mention that as this website serves a positive purpose for those of us who are not professional philosophers.

    I tend to view our capacities to feel qualia, have a sense of self, and later to anticipate or envision future consequences of actions as emergent phenomena. At the level where these capacities emerge I think neither an objective deterministic view, nor a subjective solipsistic view can fully describe the capacity. I currently lean towards work that attempts to synthesize the views ( phenomenoligical and scientific) like that of Evan Thompson ( enactivism ).


  31. The discussion has proceeded on the assumption that all choices are equal. This is far from true and it has a material effect on the free will discussion.

    First we need to understand that the brain is massively modular with lower levels of modules attending to routine tasks, automated tasks or tasks needing fast reaction times.

    Sitting atop these modules is what we might call the central executive, the conscious, willing part of your mind.
    Learning to ride a bicycle creates new modules to attend to the details of keeping your balance while the central executive concentrates on the goal. At the lower modular levels it is safe to say that free will is to a large extent absent.

    The central executive influences the modules through training and priming. Training creates new modules or modifies them. Priming prepares the system by preferentially activating certain modules, as for example, when a cricket batsman studies the approach of the fast bowler. Free will comes into play through training and priming. So the action of the batsman is partially free willed in that he primed the modules and is partially non-free willed in that his response to the cricket ball hurtling down at him at speed is largely automated. It has to be because there is too little time for conscious analysis of speed, spin and trajectory.

    Then we come to the central executive and here the situation is also complex from a free will perspective. There are basically four levels of choice that the central executive can make and the degree of free will varies with the level.

    1. Reactive choices. You are presented with a situation and must make an appropriate choice. The inputs reliably determine your choices(apart from noise). This is psychological determinism. But not necessarily deterministic, as we will see later.

    2. Contemplative choices. The mind can roam over the past, analysing its memories. It can consider the present. It can analyse words, essays, art, etc. Contemplative choices are freely exercised choices made by the mind.

    3. Predictive choices. This is where the mind imagines future possible outcomes. Planning a vacation or planning your next chess move are examples. The mind creates scenarios and roams freely over the scenarios. Predictive choices are also freely exercised choices mad by the mind.

    4. Creative choices. You choose to create a sonnet, an essay, etc. You freely choose to create something new.

    Contemplative, predictive and creative choices involve the operation of free will while reactive choices are mostly deterministic. Mostly because because the free choices made at levels 2, 3 and 4 can feedback into the reactive choice(level 1), modifying it.

    People point to modular choices (Libet experiment, for example) and reactive choices and say, ergo, there is no free will. But they fail to consider the higher levels of choice, contemplative, predictive and creative, which, by their very nature, require free will.

    Worse still, they fail to consider the significance of consciousness. Without free will consciousness would be unnecessary.


  32. Aravis has some VERY good observations. I didn’t mention Wittgenstein in this comment:

    Look at this as analytic philosophy saying that our findings may be ultimately fuzzy, that we can only clarify so far. Some of those “unknown unknowns” may remain that way.

    In part because I was at my 500 word limit, but that idea was there, too.

    I don’t claim to be making a Wittgensteinian intervention, but I am staking the ground for the need for one.

    Per other commenters, such an intervention may not be entirely science-based, but it certainly will be in part. And, of course, scientific-based findings will be descriptive and not prescriptive on this.

    You’re very right that, for most people, the issues of free will and morals overlap. When I had talked to Massimo, on and off Rationally Speaking about these issues, I think even he wanted a more robust idea of free will than I did, or do, in part due to issues of moral agency.

    And, part of a Wittgensteinian intervention — or a house-cleaning, as I called it — is to separate these issues. I think I even said on one of Massimo’s old RS posts that failure to do so is to let religious-based ideas of guilt govern discussion about —and investigation of — free will.

    Per Robin, such investigation may not give us a tremendous amount of additional mental clarity, or empirical findings, but if we get any more of either one, we’re ahead of where we are now. We’re ahead of where we are in terms of self-knowledge, and we’re ahead of where we are now as to what that self-knowledge means. Even quarter-loaves are better than no bread at all.

    Labnut Some of those recent neuroscience findings I mentioned under the Wikipedia link have shown that the “modularity” issue has perhaps been pushed too far at times. I think ideas like “fast” vs. “slow” thinking can be adequately discussed without issues of modularity, beyond generally accepted ones such as the neocortex.

    As for your last sentence:

    Without free will consciousness would be unnecessary.

    If both of them are but impotued or distorted self-perceptions in some way, per the Washington Post link I posted in my first comment, the idea of “necessity” falls apart. At a minimum, until we know more about both free will (or “something like free will”) and consciousness, discussion of philosophical necessity isn’t even on the plate, for me.

    To sum up this comment, I’m going to turn back to Hume, to a comment Thomas has seen me make more than once.

    I have noted that Hume essentially “acted as if” on the problem of induction. We still do today, though we have moved beyond Hume in some notable ways.

    We’re at the same state on consciousness and free will. Again, if we can get even a quarter-loaf out of appropriate scientific research, as well as philosophical house-cleaning, we’re definite steps ahead of today.


  33. Labnut-

    I agree it is useful to consider the different types or levels of actions we can engage in and the associated potential differences of freedom vs constraint in what we call our ‘will’ at those various levels. I don’t however think we can say our ‘will’ is completely free or completely constrained at any of those levels because:

    1) As you mention at the level of reactions we can to some degree cultivate or train our reactions to improve them though practice.
    2) The options for our choices and our preference of options in your levels 2 through 4 are to some degree determined by the lower level unconscious processes.

    I think that our research should be geared to understanding how we can best cultivate improved awareness of the patterned sources of our ‘wants’ so that we might best apply our ‘will’ to align our intrinsic ‘wants’ with our extrinsic ‘wants’.


  34. Socratic,
    modularity” issue has perhaps been pushed too far at times

    See the relevant SEP article( The extent of modularity is disputed but that does not change my reasoning or conclusions. In any case my argument assumed low level modularity of the type proposed by Fodor.

    If both of them [free-will & consciousness] are but impotued[sic] or distorted self-perceptions in some way … the idea of “necessity” falls apart

    Would you like to explain your claim? I will explain mine.

    Consider an advanced Google self-driving car. Thanks to very clever programming, it consults a map, scans the roads and navigates through an environment, calling on an immense repertoire of stored and acquired knowledge. It uses its experience to self-modify its algorithms, fine tuning them as it gains experience. The car has no consciousness and it has no free will, nor does it need them. Given its goals, it need only scan its environment and follow its rule set.

    People who claim we have no free will are effectively claiming we are like the driver in a Google self-driving car. The car is going to do what it is going to do regardless. I am simply a passenger in my car, watching life go by. Why then do I need this really complex facility called consciousness if I am fated to be merely an observer? Why do I need the illusion of control? If I have no free will my conscious mind cannot affect the outcome so I have neither the need for consciousness nor a need for an illusion of free will. I might just as well be fast asleep at the wheel while my Google self-driving car gets on with its life.

    So if free will does not exist, I do not have the slightest need for consciousness and I certainly have no need for an illusion that I am in control. Why then would evolution create this magnificent illusion that I am controlling my self-driving car when in fact it is all going to happen regardless? What a pointless, costly waste of resources!

    Given these considerations, the claim that we have no free will is plainly incoherent. Our possession of consciousness and a strong sense of agency is clear evidence that we do possess free will, even if we cannot yet give a scientific account for it. You may claim that my experience of life is an illusion but you are going to have to produce really good evidence to sustain your claim. To date that has not been done. Until then I will continue on my journey through life, freely choosing my goals and freely making choices on the way. It is called conscious free will.

    When you choose to reply, formulate your arguments and choose your words, you too will be exercising conscious free will, even if you deny it. However, if you manage to read my comment, create and send a coherent reply, all while unconscious, I will believe your claim. Good luck with that.


  35. Socratic,

    I enjoyed your essay and I agree FreeWill is a non-starter and I don’t think (radical) determinism makes sense.

    At this point I’m thinking something like there is a sensation of will or motivation, and that includes a sense of its freeness (or of its potential or actual effectiveness), and this sense of freedom varies with the task at hand, the context of performance, the affordances we have available to us, and more generally our genetics and developmental history.


  36. I think, therefore I am (or maybe not), that virtue ethics requires free-will.

    Note to Stoic Academy Corporation, LLC (“SAC”): A free-will legal performance disclaimer should be included in all student contracts. Something like: SAC makes no warranties, expressed or implied, concerning the suitability or fitness of any of its philosophic products for any particular purpose. It is the responsibility of the student to determine that the philosophic product is safe, lawful and technically suitable for the intended use.” In the unlikely event that a student may claim future damages against SAC for regretful/remorseful life-decisions made in hindsight, SAC shall not be held liable.

    “The virtues…we acquire by first having put them into action, and the same is also true of the arts. For the things that we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing…we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage (NE 1003a, 30-1003b, 2).” [1]

    “Hamartia is a mean between accidental and deliberate action” [1]

    “a good character is largely under a person’s control.” [1]

    “nature forms parameters within which moral training can take place, but does not determine our lives” [1]

    [1] Aristotle on the Nature and Art of Selfhood: P. Winston Fettner – Washington, D.C. 2014.

    Big Bang Material (“BBM”) explosion contained seeds of biological mind-stuff that evolved without design into high-stakes mind-game competitions. BBM created people to play you-bet-your-life chess and poker with. BBM, having no cause, existing by chance, is not a person (like a Corporation). Human attempts to sue BBM for damages attributable to life choices would be a fool’s errand. Besides, if BBM could answer, it might utter “I AM THAT I AM” and “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE”, words the plaintiff could not bear to hear.

    BBM is THE subject matter expert regarding games of chance, and the hidden law of probable outcomes. Management is prediction. BBM has dealt perhaps infinite card-hand variations to its beloved accidental children. BBM may choose to look over your shoulder and peek at your hand (read your mind), or not. BBM may have dealt the cards BLINDLY, or not.

    The high-risk-reward game stakes question for humus-compost-being participants is: Will there continue to be something (evolutionary progression), or will there be nothing (degeneration-entropy-nihilism). Some might say: If its nihilism, then all bets are off (“let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” 1 Cor 15:32). For me, if nihilism is life’s end-game, then I agree with Camus: choose absurd happiness (“The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”), versus suicide. That’s a big life choice for a pawn on the cosmic game board.

    However, I’m not convinced that nihilism is the only probable outcome of life’s end-game. And. If someone can prove to me that it is (in this life) I will pay them $1 Billion “Quatloos” (in the next life), at the river of Memory. The subject behind my eyeballs is still analyzing the object under my anamnesis-scope. The end-game can probably only be known though experience, a-posteriori, after death.

    However, imagine, Disney-like, being able to look over the shoulder of that transcendent-immanent enthroned BBM, and stealing a peek at its cards. Better yet, stealing a peek behind its eyeballs.

    Think about the opportunity for monetizing that brand experience.

    How boring life must be for a predictable hypothetical BBM. It knows the beginning from the end, stuck in eternal return mode. All the TV shows are repeats, forever. For creative BBM’s however, the anti-boredom solution resides in not knowing the outcome. Real versus illusory fun and virtue ethics education can be achieved thereby, in addition to WAGERING on the probable outcome (Book of Job). BBM is in charge of Panopticon Earth. Like Santa Claus, it knows if we are bad or good, IF it is watching, or, if human consciousness records an indelible impression. “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching” C.S.Lewis).

    Note: “Quatloos” currency exchange is available on planet Triskelion:


  37. I appreciate the further feedback from others who note this is a sticky wicket. Again, agreed, and again, I’ll take a quarter-loaf of advancement vs. none at all.

    Marcel again gets at the idea I mentioned was at the Washington Post piece linked in my first comment. Some of these “sensations” may also turn out to be … epiphenomena, if you will. Or sub-spandrels, if you will let me riff on Steve Gould.


    Labnut — I don’t totally reject modularity; I just feel that claims for it have sometimes been overstated.

    Consciousness, while it overlaps with volition, and so do some of its issues, of course, goes beyond it, too. That said, evolution has no telos! It didn’t “decide” to create consciousness at some “level” of evolution.

    Per the analogy? We’re perhaps more like a bowling ball bouncing between two gutters, with no pins in sight … just a bowling lane that continues.


    Seth, thanks for your various comments.


  38. EJ Winner, I don’t think any humanistic principles are required. People’s personal interest in a fair game are the only justification for fair rules we need. How to deal with cheaters is not the issue here. Also, deterrent punishment is wholly compatible with acknowledging the absence of “free” will, inasmuch as the deterrent effect could work not just consciously, but unconsciously, as positive reinforcement usually does.. Escalating punishment to break a defiant free will makes sense in free will approaches (which includes compatibilism.)

    Aravis Tarkheena, I’m having difficulty in reading you in any other way than saying that ascription of moral agency is necessary for moral discourse and that it is nonsense to ask about agency precisely because it is a necessary premise of moral discourse. Moral discourse itself derives from our moral feelings, not from conscious choice of moral rules, such as we might imagine in people writing a social contract? Yet moral discourse is not a game, therefore making people play by rules they are forbidden to challenge is a dubious proposition. Also, the assumption that the conventional notions of moral feelings are manifest doesn’t seem at all obvious to me. The Wittgensteinian approach I assume to be good philosophy but it seems like a dead end to me.

    Robin Herbert, I don’t think I clearly get your point. But I would like to say that in the sciences, one meaning of “determinate” is that a given property has a specific value. And “indeterminate” means having no value, which is not the same as unknown (or even unknowable.) The usual belief I think is that something that is indeterminate has a questionable reality, which is what makes quantum mechanics so “shocking.” In what sense are elementary particles real when they are not being measured, i.e., are indeterminate? Random means, as you said, having more than one possible outcome. In repeated processes the aggregate outcomes are highly predictable but individual ones are not. The outcomes in QM are statistically predictable, So randomness is not a problem as such. And this is not just true on a microscopic scale. It was the study of meteorology that led to the realization there is deterministic chaos, in which outcomes are both completely deterministic yet individually unpredictable. If that’s the sort of thing you’re driving at, I think it’s more or less the standard view (excepting that the dichotomies determinate vs. indeterminate and predictable vs. probabilistic are regarded as distinct.)

    Labnut, the possibility that conscious reasoning has some influence does not mean free will. Conscious reasoning to choose between two goals may be an evolutionary adaptation but free will means choosing the goals. There is no evidence that people do this and much they can’t. I choose my words consciously but I do not choose to be interested in the topic we’re discussing. Two asides: People not being computers, consciousness as a tool to organize sensory input is nature’s way I think, and incoherence may be philosophy’s criterion, but correspondence to reality should be the standard, since incoherence can be on the part of the observer.


  39. stevenjonson wrote:

    “Yet moral discourse is not a game, therefore making people play by rules they are forbidden to challenge is a dubious proposition.”


    Every conceptual framework is a language game. The significance of “game” is that there is more than one and for each and the relevant grammars, logic, and rules may be different. This is one of the ways that Wittgenstein undermines the dead-end “God’s eye” view of philosophy.

    The conception of rules that you invoke here is exactly what Wittgenstein argued was mistaken. Rules are not antecedent conditions which, if you follow them, produce the relevant competent performance (and he has a devastating argument that demonstrates they *cannot* play this role.) Rather, rules are post-hoc descriptions of competent performances. It’s because *these* performances are acceptable and *those* are not, that our behavior *counts* as following *this* rule.


  40. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. In moral discourse, the concept of agency is not a post hoc descriptor of a competent performance, For example, it was not agreed that a child with Tourette’s lacked agency and therefore should not be punished for profanity. Instead, awareness of the syndrome increased and the behavior was in principle no longer punished as willful misbehavior. But there are many mentally ill persons in prison right now. How is useful to assume that “our” assessment of their agency is necessarily a post-hoc assessment of competent performance? Such an assumption limits all criticism to individual cases, places the burden of proof wholly upon the designated targets and insists that a dubious metaphysical principle must somehow be refuted in the judgment of proponents who insist they need merely inform their judgments with empirical arguments!

    In other words, moral discourse really is very much like a game, and the point is to win. Conventional morality is to be enforced, and moral discourse is very much a part of that game. I agree that a default assumption of moral agency is crucial to the game, with exemption limited to whatever level is expedient to continued play. But rigging the rules, then deeming the rules to be unquestionable, is necessary for the playing of the game. As you say, if you start talking about the reality of the agency, the game isn’t being played. But for lots of people it’s the game playing them.

    Perhaps this is not at all what you meant, but as of now I can’t see how Wittgensteinian critique can lead anywhere.


  41. Hi Aravis,

    I find your exposition of Wittkensteinian language games very intriguing. To me, it seems particularly useful for addressing moral puzzles in particularism vs. universalism and maybe to conceptualize a tenable view of “just desert”.

    But when you explain that “rule formation” is not a priori but rather post-hoc, I wonder how this is supposed to be understood. Wouldn’t then the process of “rule formation” itself need some form of guidance in order to escape the charge of arbitrariness and where could this guidance come from? More rules?

    I other words, wouldn’t there still be a need for some minimal or foundational rule set from which all the others are derived?


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