To Be, Or Not To Be…Free: Sam Harris & Jerry Coyne On Free Will — Guest Post by Mariano Grinbank

mariano-grinbank.jpgMariano Grinbank is a Judeo-Christian apologist who knows when to say he’s not sorry. See this video).

Lack of free will is a trope that is growing in importance in scientific circles. Men like Sam Harris travel to lectures and announce, “I have no choice but to tell you that you have no choice. If you don’t believe this, you’re foolish.” Grinbank identifies what he sees are flaws in arguments like this.

Skeptics of free will are welcome to submit rebuttals (if they choose to do so).

In March of 2012 AD Sam Harris will publish a new book titled, Free Will. He and Jerry Coyne have been stoking the fires of polemics in anticipation.

Sam Harris is known for his Atheist activism and is also a biased neuroscientist1. Jerry Coyne is also an Atheist activist and professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. These gentlemen represent the deleterious effects of turning Darwinism, and science in general, into world-views. Darwinism is supposed to be a theory about biology and science is a tool with which we explore the material realm. However, some turn these into world-views and thereby construct blinders.

The effect of these blinders is a restriction of thought: the opposite of freethinking. This is because anything that goes against, or is outside of the world-view parameters, is simply a priori ruled out. Thus, Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne take an Atheistic, materialistic, mechanistic, reductionist (by any other name) view of life, the universe and everything. On their collective views we and our brains can do none but blindly follow the dictates of the laws of thermodynamics.

Jerry Coyne refers to our brains as “meat computers” and in this case, you do not get a choice as to whether you get yours rare, well done, or anything in between. Now, there is a notable distinction between Coyne and Harris. They both claim that we do not have free will but Coyne claims that we do not make choices whilst Harris claims that we do.

Coyne emphasizes that even though we do not make free will choices, we are still morally culpable and judiciously accountable. He notes that we already make provision for personages who commit crimes whilst being categorized as temporarily insane or having some such mental incapacity (or, as per a Seinfeld episode, “differently advantaged”). Yet, the most interesting, and potentially troubling, conclusion is that while we, ourselves, cannot change our minds, as it where, outside influences can change them.

Jerry Coyne claims that we cannot “step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works” because “‘we’ are simply constructs of our brain” and that “We can’t impose a nebulous ‘will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions.”

However, environment can accomplish it. The incarceration of criminals, for instance, “makes it less likely you’ll behave badly in the future.” So, we cannot change ourselves but environment, other people a.k.a. society and/or the government, can change us. How other meat computers can change our meat computers when we cannot change our own meat computer is something which does not compute.

How does incarceration make it “less likely you’ll behave badly in the future”? It would still come down to the individual as they would instigate or otherwise elicit some change in the meat computer that resides within its cranium—perhaps a touch of “Mrs. Dash” would do the trick.

Sam Harris concludes that our subconscious brain merely spits out “determined” data (determined, or predetermined, by the laws of thermodynamics) about which we then make choices via our conscious brain. But how is making conscious choices about unconscious data not free will?

We may experience an instinct to do this or that but we then chose the course of action. But what about instincts, in and of themselves, and/or reflexes? Well, some of these are learned such as when you burned yourself and seek to not do it again. Others appear to be more foisted upon us such recoiling from a hot object. Just where is the line between the rapid reaction of a reflex and a forced action? After all, you can keep your hand over a flame—if you so choose.

There seems to be a vast difference between a reaction such as a reflex, on the one hand, and purposing to ponder a course of action, on the other hand. We may sift through options but we have the experience of choosing between them. The Coyne/Harris retort of claiming that this perceived choice is a mere illusion is merely begging the question. As Sam Harris puts it when referring to the idea of lacking free will, “Most people find that idea intolerable, so powerful is our illusion that we really do make choices.”

This is tantamount to asking someone whether they have ever been abducted by aliens. If they respond that they have not, you then tell them that of course they have but the aliens erased their memory.

The concept of lacking free will is certainly not new nor is it exclusive to the Atheists who hold to it. However, Harris and Coyne are appealing to “science”; particularly, neuroscience. Not surprisingly, they conclude that what we think of as free will is brain stuff because we can see how segments of the brain light up in MRIs when we engage in what we think of as making decisions.

Well, neuroscience is a soft enough science so as to allow for malleable interpretations such as:

  • Portion X of the brain lights up when…
  • Portion X pertains to…
  • Therefore, the lighting up of portion X means that…

As William Briggs rightly noted whilst reviewing Sam Harris’ research “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief”:

Ignore religion and answer this: do the brains of the affronted and angry operate differently in those heightened states of emotion than in those who are placid, smug, or contented?

Could it not be that the “emotion centers” of the brain light up for Christians in this experiment not because they are Christians but because they have just been repeatedly poked by a sharp rhetorical stick?

The “sharp rhetorical stick” refers to the questions posed during Harris’ pseudo-experiment.

Now, of course, Harris’ and Coyne’s neuroscientific conclusions are tantamount to concluding that color and shape are merely brain stuff that does not exist out there in the real world because segments of our brains light up when we view color and shape.

What reason, really, is there to deny our common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion that we have free will? In this case, it is that some Atheists are interpreting lights flashing on a screen. Moreover, their interpretations are based upon materialism, mechanism, reductionism in short: based upon their particular, and peculiar, Atheistic world-views. But why should we believe that their world-view is accurate? After all, they claim that it cannot be proven and since they are making extraordinary claims they must provide evidence that is more extraordinary than expecting us to believe their personal interpretations of “data.”

———————————————————–

1He is referred to as biased because before becoming a neuroscientist he was asked “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” by Edge – The World Question Center and his response was:

What I believe, though cannot yet prove, is that belief is a content-independent process. Which is to say that beliefs about God—to the degree that they are really believed—are the same as beliefs about numbers, penguins, tofu, or anything else…

What I do believe, however, is that the neural processes that govern the final acceptance of a statement as ‘true’ rely on more fundamental, reward-related circuitry in our frontal lobes—probably the same regions that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors…

Once the neurology of belief becomes clear, and it stands revealed as an all-purpose emotion arising in a wide variety of contexts (often without warrant), religious faith will be exposed for what it is: a humble species of terrestrial credulity. We will then have additional, scientific reasons to declare that mere feelings of conviction are not enough when it comes time to talk about the way the world is.

The only thing that guarantees that (sufficiently complex) beliefs actually represent the world, are chains of evidence and argument linking them to the world…Understanding belief at the level of the brain may hold the key to new insights into the nature of our minds, to new rules of discourse, and to new frontiers of human cooperation.

Thus, he comes into science already believing that which he seeks to prove, “What I believe, though cannot yet prove.”

77 Comments

  1. Grinbank puts his finger on the biggest weakness when he tells us of Coyne’s claim

    that we cannot “step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works” because “‘we’ are simply constructs of our brain” and that “We can’t impose a nebulous ‘will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions.”

    This is a paradigmatic instance of begging the question. Free will is our selves imposing rules on and modifying our meat computers. If you say there cannot be free will because we can’t impose will, you are simply asserting what you hope is true. You are not offering evidence or argument.

    Coyne, Harris, and others also fall prey to another famous fallacy, one that runs through science like the ebola virus, and is just as virulent. I mean the It-Can’t-Be-True-Because-I-Can’t-Think-Why-It-Should-Be-True fallacy.

    For example, Harris looks at free will and says, “Given what I know, I can’t think of how we can have free will. Therefore, we don’t.”

    Some scientists say that because of this physical concept (second law of thermodynamics, say) or that biological item (“selfish” genes, perhaps), free will can’t be. These scientists all agree that we think there is free will, that it surely looks like we do, but say there really can’t be free will because these physical-biological theories are incompatible with our observations.

    We see that we have free will. We see that we have physical models that say this-and-such. If there is an incompatibility we have to throw one of these items out. Harris and Coyne choose (ahem) to toss out the observations and embrace the model.

    In what other fields of science do we see this kind of behavior? Love of models will be the death of us!

  2. Whar an amazing mixture of gibberish and reasonable points.

    I’m on my smartphone, so I won’t be able to specify exactly where the apologist goes wrong, but I’ll leave with the simple point that none of the people have defined what they mean by free will. My guess? You are using a word you never understood.

  3. I can’t tell which is worse or who is more biased. Arguing that the determinists of every shade are using bad science to refute free will, or letting free will apologists continue to pin arguments to a donkey’s ghost so that we can all at least continue to play the game of rational debate.

    I still find Galen Strawson’s basic argument a little compelling, and even if we grant that there is some type of freedom for ALL sentient beings, it’s certainly so prohibitively constrained by factors that we have no control over to be almost pointless. If you don’t agree then I’d ask why you aren’t doing what you ‘really really’ want to do right now, at this moment? If you ‘really really’ want to be reading what some charlatan like me is writing on the internet from your little perch then lets all reflect on how outrageously wasteful that really is. Do we deserve that freedom? Tell that!

  4. I have no choice but to say that if I ever need an example of mind-boggling stupidity, ‘Free Will’, by Harris and Coyne, which I apparently have no choice but to not read, will necessarily serve as the diamond standard.

    I will be using this lack of choice as a defense when, inevitably, I am the subject of a class action suit for slander by the mind-bogglingly stupid for comparing them to Harris and Coyne.

    Quoting Fred Reed’s column of March 7, 2005: “Evolution writ large is the belief that a cloud of hydrogen will spontaneously invent extreme-ultraviolet lithography, perform Swan Lake, and write all the books in the British Museum.”

    The denial of free will requires the same belief.

  5. Colour is well known not to exist but rather be something which the brain produces. I don’t know what relevance that has to the rest of the argument…….

  6. Of course hoe do you tell the difference between a world with free will and one without? Can we do an experiment? I don’t think so.

  7. It has been shown that if we have free will, then so do electrons.

    No experiment has ever shown that an electron does NOT have free will. Nor any collection of electrons. Thus, a belief in free will is scientifically tenable.

    BTW, I find the concept of free will quite useful in understanding the nature of quantum mechanics and its purpose in our universe. Although creating a universe in which there is free will would seem to be a difficult undertaking for an omniscient, omnipotent God — The Big Guy seems to have pulled it off. A random universe would render free will meaningless because any actions we would choose to take would have unpredictable results. Yet a predictable universe would contradict the very meaning of free will. Experiment shows we live in between these extremes.

  8. This post seems more of an abrading of Coyne and Harris than a case for free will. If it IS an argument for free will then — correct me if I’m wrong — the argument amounts to: “I have free will because I think I do”, which in turn, is not much different than: “I can’t think of any other explanation”. Or worse, “I don’t like the implications”.

    Arguing for or against free will, though, is like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a straight pin. Other comparisons: can computers and dogs think; does God exist.

    Care should be used when slinging “also a biased neuroscientist” and such about. There’s a saying about stones and glass houses that may apply here.

    —-

    Bob Ludwick, Quoting Fred Reed … The denial of free will requires the same belief

    Er, no it doesn’t.

  9. Andy, Colour is well known not to exist but rather be something which the brain produces.

    Color does indeed exist. It means photons at specific wavelengths. “Blue” however, doesn’t exist outside of our brains. It’s just a label like “chair” that we use. The concept of color IS internal. It’s our world model.

    As for relevance, it helps (*ahem*) color the argument — mere decoration.

  10. DAV,

    Mariano can answer for the other matters, but I’ll offer an explanation for one thing. “I observe that I have free will, therefore I do” is different than “I believe (because of some theory) I do not have free will, therefore I don’t.” The observation alone is enough to prove free will. The theory must have in it beliefs more fundamental and obviously true than does the observation that “I” have free will.

    Indeed, I do not think you can even write about free will without using language that presumes it. If there is no free will, there is no “I”, to begin with. There is only deterministic matter operating under external forces. That’s easy to say, but now try applying it to the actions of real people, esp. their thoughts, and see how far you get.

  11. Briggs,

    The problem may be the observation. Try listing the reasons for any given decision. If you don’t know what they are, how can you say the decision was made freely? If you do have reasons, how do you know they didn’t compel the decision? You might claim you didn’t HAVE to decide that way but the observation is that you DID. Saying you COULD have done something differently is rationalization. It would seem to me that if the operational rules behind decision making are the result of a cost/benefit analysis, you will ALWAYS choose what you believe to be the best tradeoff. IOW: your decisions are made for you by you.

    Like with angels on a pin, there isn’t anyway to test this or any other theory — including free will.

  12. Sorry, i missed this somehow: If there is no free will, there is no “I”, to begin with.

    Really? To me, “I” represents conscious self-awareness. Why should self-awareness require the ability to make any decision the self-awareness pleases?

  13. DAV,

    Well, nobody claims that we can make “any” decision we please. But I (have to use that word) can’t see how you can even speak of an “I” without also invoking free will. Even choosing what to think about is making a choice.

    Of course, we might guess another is rationalizing, and we might sometimes do it unaware (but truly unaware?), but it does not follow we always do. And eve if we always did, to rationalize is still to make a choice about thoughts.

  14. Briggs, But I (have to use that word) can’t see how you can even speak of an “I” without also invoking free will. Even choosing what to think about is making a choice.

    Hmmm.. I often don’t think I have a choice to think about the things I think about. They just happen. In any case, I thought (see, I can’t help it either) I did speak of “I” without invoking free will. I simply don’t see how the two get entangled perforce. They are entangled here because of the topic but that doesn’t mean free will must be an integral component of self-awareness.

    nobody claims that we can make “any” decision we please.

    I didn’t mean any in the universe, any was supposed to be a member of the set of possible decisions to be made at the time of the decision. Maybe Luis is right: Free Will should have some definition or there will be constant misunderstanding of some sentences.

    we might guess another is rationalizing … but it does not follow we always do.

    And neither does it follow that you don’t even if you sometimes think you don’t. My point was that the observation you spoke of isn’t sufficient evidence.

  15. DAV,

    I claim it is sufficient evidence. That is, any time—at any instance, even once—I observe that I make a choice, I conclude that I, at least one time, that I had free will.

    Again, because some thoughts “intrude” does not mean they always do—and even knowing they do (when it happens) puts us in an entirely different league.

    Yes, I’m anxious too for Luis’s, or any opponent’s, definition. Like I’ve always said, disbelieving in free will is something only academics do, and then only “officially.” Nobody does for real (it isn’t possible).

  16. Nobody does for real (it isn’t possible).

    I guess I only think free will isn’t something I believe in.

    Something to consider: when questioned why about a decision people ALWAYS** provide a reason even if it’s “I just wanted to”. I claim the given reason (if it isn’t an outright lie) compelled the decision.

    **”I don’t know” may simply mean “I’d rather not say”. If it really is “I don’t know” you gotta wonder how free the decision was.

  17. Materialists think that the universe is capable of producing every sensation and thought that we experience as well as providing fleshy gene-vehicles in which to do it. Their view of the universe is fundamentally more awesome than the view of those who say this is impossible. Most of them would say that emotions such as love, lust, compassion, jealousy, pride and nepotism emerge predictably from Darwinian principles.

    To successfully challenge this view, a critic must have more than an argument from incredulity to fall back on. Unfortunately for our critic this involves challenging the heart of naturalistic science. Miracles have never been seen as parsimonious, empirically testable, or useful in understanding any part of the natural world.

    It might help our critic to state why, beyond personal incredulity, they believe the universe cannot produce organisms with a sense of free will and free thought. Or, if indeed the universe may be as wonderful as the materialists believe it to be, why they believe the addition of a soul, or similar miracle, adds anything to our understanding.

    This materialism it is the heart of all science. It is not based on any particular theories in neuroscience, any “particular, and peculiar, Atheistic world-views”. If anyone wants to challenge this and introduce souls/miracles/ghosts/djinn/”genuinely could have done otherwise regardless of reductionist causality free will” then I think that any burden of proof ought to be on them.

    I do feel for our plucky critic, this is a tough nut to crack.

  18. @George Steiner

    >If there is such a thing as “will”, isn’t it by definition free?

    Very good. If only the debate were that simple. Unfortunately we must introduce a distinction between “compatibilist” free will – free will that is compatible with the laws of physics – and “miraculous” free will which operates independently of the normal laws of physical causality.

    When Sam Harris and other materialists challenge the concept it is the miraculous variety that they disagree with.

  19. Briggs, how do you differentiate between a choice made of free will and a computation based on distilled experiences and observations of the current situation?

  20. mt,

    That’s a good question. Put another way: what if I could program a computer to do the same thing? Would that mean I’ve somehow conveyed Free Will to it? How could anyone say otherwise?

    One only needs to look at the language people use when talking about the decision process. How often have you heard “I’d rather do x BUT … ” So, if you have free will, why not do x as you’d rather? Doesn’t the statement imply whatever followed the BUT became mandatory? How does one set out to get another “to make the right decisions”? A reason with an implied cost or benefit or both is given (” or else I’ll kick your butt”; “it’s good for you”). Sometimes people respond “I just wanted to” when asked why. When further pressed on why THAT instead of the other possibilities, the response very often boils down to “it pleased me the most” which implies a cost/benefit analysis.

    The language used to describe the decision process implies that people are more than aware decision making is a cost/benefit analysis. Free will implies we would make such an analysis then discard the answer. I have to ask, why bother with it then?

  21. And that is the answer to why incarceration is supposed to work. Instead of cost/benefit, call it risk/reward. Jail time is supposed to add a new experience such that when the next opportunity for crime arises, the risk now outweighs the reward. Additionally, and here I disagree with Coyne, it gives the criminal time to reflect and possibly change the decision making process itself.

  22. Until now I’ve thought that the scientific answer to whether or not humans have free will would have to wait until humans can build an artificial brain that is both indistinguishable from a human in it’s responses and deterministic in it’s basic operation. Deterministic is the key here, I think. Deterministic in both response amplitude and time. An example of a present day deterministic machine is a digital computer that operates with quantized state variables and quantized time intervals. Contrast this with an analog computer whose responses vary in amplitude (noise) and in time (jitter).

    I believe that if humans ever succeed in building an artificial brain that meets the indistinguishable-response criteria, the first incarnation will certainly be an analog computer, an asynchronous machine with fuzzy logic and ‘noisy’ responses, and due to it’s sheer complexity it’s existence won’t shed any light on the free will question. The internal state variables in such a machine are likely to exhibit a chaotic response when repeatedly restarted with the exact same initial conditions and the exact same input sequences. There will be discernible patterns in the state variables (strange attractors?) that taken as a whole favor certain overall machine responses over others, but the response won’t be identical each time the machine is run. So, is such a machine exhibiting free will, or simply some randomness in it’s responses to identical inputs?

    At this point, I was going to say if an artificial brain could ever be built with deterministic components, the subject of free will could finally be researched scientifically. But upon further reflection, it seems like the mere existence of such a machine disproves that free will is necessary to be indistinguishably close to human. And if my decisions are indistinguishable from a deterministic machine’s responses . . . well, I guess I wouldn’t care if I had free will or not, since I then know that I wouldn’t need free will to be human.

    But such machines certainly won’t exist in my lifetime (if ever). Should I care about the question of whether I have free will? I don’t see why I should, I should just assume that I do and get on with my life. After all, if I suddenly realize I don’t have free will, well, I guess I just become an observer, a couch potato with a broken remote.

  23. genemachine,

    I can’t answer for Mariano, but…why did you choose to answer him? You had no choice? It was determined that from before the big bang that you, genemachine, on 28 January 2012 at 9:41 pm (EST), would write the very words you did?

    While it might be true that miracles have “never been seen as parsimonious, empirically testable” etc. this is not equivalent to, and it is not true, that miracles are not empirically testable, etc. Any talk of miracles always boils down to probability. Regardless of that, I don’t see Mariano saying that it is miracles that enable free will.

    You also appear to assume that the only respectable view a scientist can hold is that of “Darwinian” explanations of behavior. I’ll name just four behaviors that are anti-Darwinian: abortion, adoption, priests & nuns (any religion), nurses. There are many more. I’d put altruism in there, but I don’t want to sidetrack us on some mathematical models that theorize how we should favor feeding six (or whatever) of our cousins over one of our sons.

    It is simply raw assertion to claim that “Materialism, therefore determinism, therefore no free will.” It can very well be, and I think it is, that our emergent selves direct, in a material non-miraculous way, our “meat computers.” I also don’t need to explain how this happens; indeed, I don’t know (nobody does). But I don’t need to know how the car works, for instance, to know that I can take a drive.

    Now, you also speak of the “laws” of physics. Just what are these? Well, certain mathematical models based on a series of assumptions, deductions, contingent observations, and so on. They are far from immutable (any theory which encompasses contingent observes is by definition mutable; if we have to observation h, for example, the theory in which is resides is mutable). Therefore, if we see a “law” being violated it’s the law that is broken, not the observation.

    DAV,

    Your example doesn’t work in general. “I’d rather spend a life of leisure and reading but..” But I don’t have the money.

    And I’m not convinced that people “always” provide a reason. Sometimes “I don’t know” means “I don’t know.”

  24. Briggs, I don’t see why not. Your decision to go out and work wasn’t exactly a free choice. And yes, people always have a reason. At least I’ve yet to encounter anyone who claimed to have NO reason. Are you the first?
    If you don’t know the reason maybe the choice wasn’t so free after all?

  25. Might I recommend the following scholarly article (I found this gem via Massimo Pigliucci’s blog)?

    “How Does Neuroscience Affect Our Conception of Volition” By Adina L. Roskies.
    http://dc202.4shared.com/doc/Nr5iIB6T/preview.html

    The author not only gives a succinct review of the literature but also has thoughtfully formulated and shown good understanding of the opponents’ positions. The link only contains part of the article, so I copy and paste the concluding remarks below. Since somebody has imposed a copyright rule on me, so I have no choice but not to share the copy I have.

    “Volition: the faculty that makes possible voluntary action or choice; the will”
    APPROACHES TO VOLITION:
    Volition as Initiation
    Volition as Intention
    Volition as Decision-Making
    Volition as Executive Control
    Volition as a Feeling

    CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

    “On the whole, neuroscience has not much affected our conception of volition. It has maintained in large part notions of intention, choice, and the experience of agency. Where neuroscience has affected our conception, it has typically challenged traditional views of the relationship between consciousness and action. For example, more aspects of behavior than previously imagined are governed by unconscious processes. However, since we have little traction on the neural basis of consciousness, none of those challenges, to my mind, has succeeded in undermining traditional views. However, neuroscience promises to show volition not to be a unitary faculty, but rather a collection of largely separable processes that together make possible flexible, intelligent action. It may affect our notion of volition in the future by elucidating the neural systems and computations underlying these different aspects of volition. Further elucidation of brain networks may provide a better way of taxonomizing the elements of volition (Brass & Haggard 2008; Pacherie 2006, 2008). Although I believe that neuroscience will not bear upon the question of freedom via a frontal assault on the determinism question, increasing our understanding of the neural bases of these processes might cause us to think of volition more mechanistically than we currently do, and that may ultimately put pressure on our ordinary notions of what is required for freedom. For now, however, the most significant contribution neuroscience has made has been in allowing us to formulate novel questions about the nature of voluntary behavior, and in providing new ways of addressing them.”

  26. DAV,

    My decision to work surely was free. I could have chosen to starve, to commit suicide, as it were, a choice some employ.

    There are also things that happen for which we don’t control, say muscle spasms (perhaps scratching), so there’s lots that we do that we do not have reasons for, i.e. make choices for. I want to say more about this, but haven’t the time.

  27. Briggs,

    OK. Later. I still maintain your choices represent what you consider the best course. They may not necessarily coincide with what others consider best. I seriously doubt anyone wakes up one day and says”Oh! What the heck! Let’s see what it’s like to be dead.” More likely, suicide is seen as the best option when all of the others seem worse or impossible. The Romans did it to save face (falling on one’s sword). Cost/Benefit.

    Another example that comes to mind: When encountering someone who has made a surprising decision, one of the first questions is “What were you thinking”?

    Looking forward to later.

  28. Luis asks if we know what “free will” means, and I think Milton sets us in the right direction by bringing determinism into the discussion. Free will means the ability to act without our actions being predetermined.
    Yet consider a coin. If we flip a coin, can we determine whether it will land heads or tails? No, except in the aggregate. We “know” that fifty percent of the coin tosses will be heads and fifty will be tails. Yet the result of the next toss remains stubbornly indeterminate.
    Does the coin have free will? We would say, “of course not!” But the fact remains that the universe we live in allows the coin to frustrate our predictions of how it will land.
    If the actions of a single coin toss cannot be predicted, how can Harris and Coyne claim that the actions of a human brain are determinate? Yes, the physiochemical processes are known and measurable, in the aggregate , but that doesn’t tell us how the next mental coin flip will land.

  29. >I can’t answer for Mariano, but…why did you choose to answer him? You had no choice? It was determined that from before the big bang that you, genemachine, on 28 January 2012 at 9:41 pm (EST), would write the very words you did?

    In retrospect it does look like a very unlikely coincidence.

    >While it might be true that miracles have “never been seen as parsimonious, empirically testable” etc. this is not equivalent to, and it is not true, that miracles are not empirically testable, etc. Any talk of miracles always boils down to probability.

    I agree that, in theory, some forms of miracle could be examined empirically. I am not sure how talk of miracles boils down to probability.

    >Regardless of that, I don’t see Mariano saying that it is miracles that enable free will.

    Since Mariano is criticising materialism and is a man of the cloth, I think it is safe to infer that he is promoting a non-compatibilist version of free will.

    >You also appear to assume that the only respectable view a scientist can hold is that of “Darwinian” explanations of behavior.

    As far as I know, in all reputable fields dealing with animal behavior, it is universally agreed that genes influencing behaviors have been subject to natural selection. If anyone rejects this dogma then it would be disingenuous not to make this very explicit when commenting on the issues of the day and may raise eyebrows.

    >I’ll name just four behaviors that are anti-Darwinian: abortion, adoption, priests & nuns (any religion), nurses. There are many more. I’d put altruism in there, but I don’t want to sidetrack us on some mathematical models that theorize how we should favor feeding six (or whatever) of our cousins over one of our sons.

    It would be a major misconception to think that evolution, if true, would make us perfect fitness calculators. Your particular combination of genes has never been tested before your birth and no organism has ever had your history or been in your circumstances. It’s unlikely that all of your genes combinations are optimal on your many polygenetic traits. Also, the pace of environmental change for our species has never been faster and some behaviors that were beneficial in past environments are actually maladaptive in modern times.

    Regarding adoption; if we do assume evolution then we can actually say a lot about the practise of adoption. Parenting and compassion are, to varying degrees, instinctual to most humans so all we need to explain is the non-optimal expression of parenting behavior. If we do not expect near-optimal expression of behaviors from novel gene combinations, histories, and circumstances then a minority of people choosing to adopt is not a great puzzle in the Darwinian view.

    >It is simply raw assertion to claim that “Materialism, therefore determinism, therefore no free will.”

    I would phrase this as “If materialism and determinism, no non-compatibilist free will”. If materialism is possible without determinism, perhaps via some unspecified random number generator, then non-compatibilist free will would still seem impossible.

    >It can very well be, and I think it is, that our emergent selves direct, in a material non-miraculous way, our “meat computers.” I also don’t need to explain how this happens; indeed, I don’t know (nobody does). But I don’t need to know how the car works, for instance, to know that I can take a drive.

    I’m glad that you assume materialistic causes for conscious experience, I will count you among my compatibilist brethren.

    >Now, you also speak of the “laws” of physics. Just what are these? Well, certain mathematical models based on a series of assumptions, deductions, contingent observations, and so on. They are far from immutable (any theory which encompasses contingent observes is by definition mutable; if we have to observation h, for example, the theory in which is resides is mutable). Therefore, if we see a “law” being violated it’s the law that is broken, not the observation.

    True, but as long as the actual laws, not our definitions of what they may be, exclude miracles then the statement should hold it’s meaning.

  30. JRego,

    There’s a difference between the impossibility of determining outcome and not knowing because of practical considerations. “indeterminate” here means the former. Theoretically, the outcome of a coin toss is determinate.

  31. Who invented free will anyway and when? I’ll have to look that up sometime.
    Meanwhile, if I don’t have free will, who is pulling my puppet strings?
    God(s), Allah, the uncertainty monster, my genes, my environment, my education, my upbringing, my culture, my cultural heritage, whoever brainwashed me? All of the above? Everyone but myself?

    Google “fmri free will”. It seems lots of people are getting lots of press on this burning question. One intriguing idea was that there are two “I” in my brain, a rational, self-conscious one and a deep, intuitive one that I (or what I think of as I) do not control. Which means (I guess) I cannot claim credit for any genius or creativity that my unconscious brain comes up with. On the other hand, having seen chickens run around after their head has been chopped off, I can believe there is more to the unconscious system than we think.
    Old cartoons which the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other come to mind, intuitive versus rational. Free will residing in the conscious rational side of course, influenced by the other but with the final say.

    I think indecision is the thing that kills off the no free will idea. What kind of ice cream do I want today?

  32. The assumption that the Christian God is all-knowing is also not compatible with the idea that humans have free will. At least, this is what a faction of Christians believe to be true. The idea came from Calvijn, AFAIK. Called it pre-destination.

    Interestingly, though, is the notion that a mind running on a human brain should not be capable of having free will, while the mind as a spiritual entity must have a free will. What is so special about unmeasurable spiritual entities that thet must have free will?

    Thermodynamics is about the huge number of possible states compared to being in one specific state. Are there not a huge number of states possible for a spiritual entity? Then you will be better of as a mind on a brain. But is there is a huge number of states possible for a spiritual entity, then thermodynamical reasoning must apply to spiritual entities too.

  33. First reaction — Oh No luis DIas frothing about to happen
    Second reaction — Is DAV and Luis Dias the same person
    Third Reaction — Nah DAV is at least making arguments that make some sense, and make me ponder.

  34. Outlier, having multiple options with equal value doesn’t have much bearing on free will. People seem to find a tie breaker (flip a coin, take the first encountered, throw darts, ask someone else, etc.) that tends to externalize the decision. Can’t think of an internal one but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    DEEBEE, How sweet of you to say!. I don’t think our Illustrious Leader would agree with the assessment in reaction number three, though.

  35. Friends, I certainly appreciate all of the interesting points and questions and ask that you please pardon me for not interacting with them all.
    Seems to me that the bottom line is still the bottom line and goes unanswered:
    “What reason, really, is there to deny our common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion that we have free will? In this case, it is that some Atheists are interpreting lights flashing on a screen. Moreover, their interpretations are based upon materialism, mechanism, reductionism in short: based upon their particular, and peculiar, Atheistic world-views. But why should we believe that their world-view is accurate? After all, they claim that it cannot be proven and since they are making extraordinary claims they must provide evidence that is more extraordinary than expecting us to believe their personal interpretations of ‘data.'”

  36. Mariano,

    I think you’ll agree that one can be an atheist and still accept free will. It is true, of course, that more atheists deny free will than do theists. But some theists, Calvinists if I understand them correctly, also deny free will.

  37. The core question is simple. Do you think your beliefs and actions are a result of a sophisticated intellectual and moral analysis of your current environment and options by a complex mind developed and honed by deep cultural and social influences, an experience-rich childhood and a uniquely evolved genetic endowment? If so then you are a moral determinist like me and can take responsibility for your actions. Poor decisions are the result of inadequate data or suboptimal brain function, both of which can be identified and potentially improved. It is in the nature of a well-functioning mind to try and improve itself.

    Or do you believe that driving your actions is some deeply unknowable controller – perhaps a random number generator, a malevolent alien using thought-control, or a Bronze-Age God? (And how can you distinguish between those possibilities?) If so then you believe in “free will” and/or are psychotic, and you must think you are a puppet and ultimately not responsible for your actions.

    To accept moral (and so neural) responsibility for your actions is to reject free-will.

  38. Mariano,

    The last sentence interesting to find here. Statistics is all about interpreting data on things that, when you get down to it, can’t be proven . In fact, so is all of science. Of course, that may depend on our definition of proof.

    I can see the need for wanting free will to be real. Without it, sin becomes moot and thus salvation cannot be earned. So I should think all theists would believe it as a matter of course. Frankly, I’ve never really understood the Calvinist position. It seems so pointless.

    Coyne and Harris aren’t shining examples of how research in this area should proceed. For one, they are attempting to photograph a concept and begin with perhaps of the most complex . It hasn’t yet been shown that simple concepts, like “chair”, can be imaged. Their work resembles the reading of tea leaves.

    However, when you said These gentlemen represent the deleterious effects of turning Darwinism, and science in general, into world-views. Darwinism is supposed to be a theory about biology and science is a tool with which we explore the material realm. However, some turn these into world-views and thereby construct blinders I have to wonder who is wearing the blinders. Assuming it were possible, who is more likely to show free will doesn’t exist? Those for whom the very concept is fundamental to their beliefs or those who don’t hold any such belief?

  39. Free will is like a sea monster; it only exists until you know what it is.

    The brain is a machine. It has it’s own feedback mechanisms, giving it the ability to make decisions. My toilet has the same ability regarding the water in the tank. Does this give my toilet free will? Does my chess playing computer have free will? Or my poker bot?

    I’m willing to bet that nobody here can will their heart rate down to 1 BPM by reasoning with their lower brain stem. Our will over our self is, at best, limited, and at worst non existent.

    We do not paint free will on any other mechanism in the physical world. To me this screams bias… The only safe conclusion is that The measuring tool (human mind) cannot be trusted in this task.

    I am now willing myself to press “Submit Comment”. Let’s see if it works.

  40. DAV: you can take the point of view that any discussion involving the rationalization of god is a sin. For two reasons.

    1. To rationalize god is to personify god, as one can only think of god in human terms.

    2. The basis of Christianity is faith. To question free will is to question the relevance of ones relationship with God. This is a lack of faith, and could be considered sinful.

    You can take sin to mean anything. Some might say a destructive behavior, a crime against yourself, etc..

    Here are a few facts that cannot be proven, or disproven, but are clearly so: this is. You are. I am. These facts are so messy that even the words used defy clear definition.

    To accept those truths, an atheist will have no choice but to create a paradoxical reality and then conveniently ignore the paradox. Or just say “i dont know”, despite obviously knowing that “they are”. A theist can embrace the paradox without having to ignore it.

  41. Will, eh? I guess the next question should be “are you free tonight”?

    Free will is inextricably bound to faith and salvation. From the Catholic Catechism (at the Vatican webste): “man turns toward God and away from sin, and so accepts forgiveness and righteousness from on high. Implicitly it has to be by choice to be worthy of salvation. Without free will one cannot choose to turn toward God and away from sin. It’s no surprise anything suggesting its non-existence will be subject to attack. To demonstrate its non-existence to someone whose faith literally depends on it would require extraordinary evidence indeed.

  42. DAV: Just to play devils advocate to the DAVine words you ripped from His representative here on earth…

    Nothing in that quote said that man chooses to turn to god. Nothing states that man chooses to accept forgiveness and salvation.

    A Calvinist could claim that all will is gods will, therefor man is just an expression of gods will. Islam claims that all things are of god, and god alone decides what god does. If god is all powerful, and gods will be done, then no other will can truly exist.

    Unless of course God wills that (some) men have free will, even if temporarily. Now we’re are in “Gods dust” territory.

    This is really more a problem with religion than it is with theism though.

  43. Will,

    This is drifting OT but briefly:

    No the quote doesn’t mention the word “choice”. To get it in would require quoting the whole thing and it’s quite long. Choice is implicit though. There’s little reason to reward a sunflower for following the sun or to punish a mushroom for not.

    The Calvinist (as I understand it) believes in predestination: whether you go to Heaven or Hell was determined before you were born. Under Calvinism there is really no point in being good to achieve Heaven as you will go there regardless of what you do. The only justification for morals is to get others to believe you are one of the chosen so it’s not a good idea to get caught being bad. Many find this appealing (the not getting caught part).

    Save this up for another time. It’s OT.

  44. @Will

    The only fact that can be proven is “I am”. Whether “You are” is equivalent to “I am” is a question. If “I am” believes the answer is No, “I am” is a Solipsist.

    As to Free Will and decision making, Free Will has never been about the ability to make decisions. It has been about the ability to examine the consequences of the actions resulting from the decision, learn from them, and the next time a similar decision has to be made, try to make a better one. In machine terms, the Utility Function itself is not fixed.

  45. Briggs,

    Love your articles, but this one is not up to snuff. For one thing, the divide between free will and determinism does not run along religious and atheist lines. If Harris is wrong, it is because he is simply wrong, not because he is an atheist. Likewise, if you are wrong, it is not because you are Christian. After all, you could have chosen Calvinism 😉

    Second, “free” of what? If all that free-will means is that I, myself, make my own choices and not another, then who could argue?

    Or does it mean that my choices are uninfluenced by outside factors or brain chemistry? Who could possibly defend that?

    Without a clear definition, arguing for (or against) free will is like arguing for fair tax rates.

  46. TheOtherJeffC,

    This isn’t my article—it’s a guest post. Guest post rebuttals are welcome.

    And, you will notice, I say in comments just what you say: that some theists claim their is no free will. I mentioned Calvinists, but there are also those religions that believe in (or say they believe in) the rigidity of fate.

  47. Mariano,

    Thanks for your thought provoking essay.

    Regarding the bottom line:

    >their interpretations are based upon materialism, mechanism, reductionism in short: based upon their particular, and peculiar, Atheistic world-views. But why should we believe that their world-view is accurate?

    They base their world view on science. As fallible as this may be, it generally works pretty well as a way to get closer to what is factually true. Do say if if you know of any other defensible path to finding truth.

    There is a lot of evidence that functioning brains cause cognition and interface with the nervous system to both sense and interact with the environment. Of course, the details of how brains do this are not fully known.

    Why should we believe this? If we care about the truth, making testable hypotheses and testing them is a good way to proceed.

    By some measures this idea of thinking meat is an extraordinary claim but, to materialists, it seems less extraordinary and more parsimonious than thinking that the way atoms interact in an animal’s nervous system is somehow different to how the atoms acted in the preceding billion years. If a hypothesised difference in how they act involves the religious concept of a soul, or applies to humans but not, say, to a parasitic wasp, and cannot be tested, then I hope you can see why I would call this speculation and think that these are the claims that require more evidence.

    >What reason, really, is there to deny our common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion that we have free will?

    One reason would be the simple arrow of causation. In the materialist view the experience of thought is caused by atoms jiggling in the brain, not vice versa. As far as I know, you can have a (dead) brain without thought but I have never seen evidence of thought without a brain.

    Regarding the perception of freedom, allow me a clichéd analogy:

    Human: On move 27, why did you move QA4?
    Chess AI: I calculated it was the best move.
    Human: You could have taken the Rook with QA3, why not?
    Chess AI: Yes, it’s a legal move, but I calculated that it was a worse choice by this reasoning: 010100101001001…

    Did the AI have a choice? was it free? It certainly made a choice and in a sense it was free – the AI evaluated and chose between all legal moves – but fundamentally it’s calculations were digital and deterministic.

    Without being pedantic about the nature of the AI, I think this is analogous to the free will debate. Both the AI and humans see and evaluate their choices but the mechanism by which their choices are made is determined by the underlying hardware, be it silicon or meat.

    I do not think that there is a necessary contradiction between making choices and a reductionist mechanism of determining that choice. It may even be possible to simulate the meat of a human brain with silicon without removing the decision making capacity.

    For these reasons, I think we can reconcile the perception of freedom with a materialistic mechanism.

    One remaining problem, as I see it, comes down to the definition of the word “free” and whether we can consider a choice to be free if it relies on a reductionist mechanism. Compatibilists, such as Dennett, say that we lose nothing of importance by continuing to using the word freedom as we normally do. I will not attempt to repeat his arguments here. You may find them interesting if you are not already familiar with them. Anyway, debates about definitions are unnecessary as long as the concepts are understood.

    Dualists, as you appear to be, will necessarily disagree with my materialist perspective but I do not see any major holes. Since truth is my goal I will not commit to belief in any unobservable, seemingly unnecessary, presumably magical, non-physical inputs.

    Thanks for reading. I hope this post was coherent and not too predictable.

  48. This is an interesting discussion that will join more fully when I am at a real computer rather than my cell phone. For now I will pose a question: If free-will is merely an illusion, why did this illusion evolve? Naural selection is concerned only with adaptive behaviors. IF the percrption that our thoughts and beliefs influence behavior is false, why would such a belief arise from natural selection?

  49. The Moon appears larger near the horizon than it does when higher. Does this illusion convey an evolutionary advantage? Probably not. It’s likely a consequence of how we process retinal images. Not every trait conveys an advantage or disadvantage. Eye color, for example.

  50. pauld,

    >If free-will is merely an illusion, why did this illusion evolve?

    I can see no obvious advantage to be gained by an animal forming the philosophical opinion that thought itself, and the experience of thinking, may ultimately be the result of matter interacting in it’s brain.

    In contrast, there are many benefits from considering choices as if there were no predetermined outcome and also from recognising agency in other animals.

    I think that dualism is our natural state, as it is for many species.

  51. >IF the percrption that our thoughts and beliefs influence behavior is false, why would such a belief arise from natural selection?

    I do not think that this is false.

  52. If God is omniscient, then He/She/It [delete whichever is inapplicable] already knows everything you have done, and will do. This implies that having an omniscient God is incompatible with free will. Therefore it has been argued that God cannot be omniscient, He/She/It [delete whichever is inapplicable] must be at least a little bit stupid. People have been killed for asserting this.

    The Git was listening to Puccini’s Turandot earlier today. As he always does, he cried during the Nessun Dorma. One supposes he could have exercised sufficient free will to not cry, but for some reason he lacks the will to do so.

    Earlier in this thread, someone mentioned arguing about angels dancing on a pinhead. From all the available evidence, this is something that no medieval thinker seems to have done; it’s an invention of some 19thC atheist. Given a choice in thinking about whether Pompous Gits have free will or what’s for dinner, The Git plumps for the latter. Curried salmon & prawns with rice and fresh vegetables from the garden. Now that’s really worth thinking about 🙂

  53. The attribute of omniscient requires that God knows that which it is logically possible to know. If it is logically impossible for an omniscient God to know what free being will choose in the future, then an omniscient God will not have such knowledge. The alleged conundrum is similar to the question, could a all-powerful God make a rock so big that he cannot move it or could he create a married bachelor?

    That being said, there are many who would argue that there is not logically impossible for an omniscient God to know what free beings will choose. Molinism, named after 16th Century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, is a religious doctrine which attempts to reconcile the providence of God with human free. You can google “Molinism” for more information.

  54. @ pauld

    Suppose God knows that I will perform a certain action tonight; for example:

    (1) God knows that I will cook curried salmon & rice with vegetables tonight.

    Clearly, this cannot be knowledge that God has recently acquired; if his omniscience is an unchanging feature, it must be knowledge he has always possessed. So:

    (2) God knew last year that I will cook curried salmon & rice with vegetables tonight.

    But (2) tells us about what was true in the past, and we generally think that what happened in the past is necessary. It follows from (2) that:

    (3) It is necessary that God knew that I will cook curried salmon & rice with vegetables tonight.

    Of course, no one can know something which is false. Indeed, in the case of God, traditional theists insist that God cannot so much as believe something which is false. So from (3) it follows that:

    (4) If God knew that I will cook curried salmon & rice with vegetables tonight, then I will cook curried salmon & rice with vegetables tonight.

    Now, (3) tells us that a certain truth is beyond anyone’s control, while (4) spells out a logical consequence of that truth. But surely what follows logically from something which is necessary must itself be necessary in that same sense. If (3) and (4) are beyond dispute, then, it follows that we are also stuck with:

    (5) It is necessary that I will cook curried salmon & rice with vegetables tonight.

    And since what I do by necessity is not something over which I have control, it follows that my act of cooking curried salmon & rice with vegetables tonight will not be a free action. As this argument form could evidently be unyolked from our culinary example, the conclusion to which we are led is that no action can be free if God possesses foreknowledge.

    I will however read Luis de Molina. It’s a problem that has vexed philosophers from the time of Sophocles.

  55. “In contrast, there are many benefits from considering choices as if there were no predetermined outcome and also from recognising agency in other animals.”

    It is not entirely clear to me why this would be so. Imagine a human being who perceives he is hungry, but is trying to loose weight. He gives some thought to his hunger and then thinks he chooses not to eat.

    What happened in this situation? For those who deny free-will one possibility is that the persons thoughts were simply irrelevant to his action. His behavior was already determined and his perception that his thinking is what caused his action was simply an illusion.

    The second possibility for those who deny free-will is that his thoughts did cause him to act in a certain way, but the content of his thoughts was determined. In such a case, his perception that he considered two alternatives and chose not to eat was simply an illusion–the decision not to eat was already determined.

    What is the adaptive value of this illusion that has caused it to be selected? We could have skipped the step of thinking consciously at all and simply acted upon whatever it is that determined the content of our thoughts. This seems to work for other animals whose “meat computer” causes them to act in a certain way without reflection. It is also the way a silicon computer would work–it would not have the illusion that it is making free choices.

  56. “I can see no obvious advantage to be gained by an animal forming the philosophical opinion that thought itself, and the experience of thinking, may ultimately be the result of matter interacting in it’s brain.

    In contrast, there are many benefits from considering choices as if there were no predetermined outcome and also from recognising agency in other animals.”

    Here is a further thoughts: If there are adaptive benefits in believing in the “illusion” of free will, then a belief is determinism would have to be less adaptive.

    Does Coyne believe that his belief in determinism causes him to act differently in a way that it is less adaptive? I suspect not. I suspect that he thinks that having to “correct” understanding of the issue may even be advantageous, but at the very least, neutral.

    So again, I am brought back to question, if both determinism and evolution are true, what is the adaptive value of the illusion of free will that would cause it to be selected.

  57. William,
    Indeed, that is why in the article I noted, “The concept of lacking free will is certainly not new nor is it exclusive to the Atheists who hold to it.”

    Toby,
    You proposed a false dichotomy and moreover, the issue is Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne and whether their denial of free will holds.

    DAV,
    Well, you answered yourself as to whether lack of free will makes sin a moot point by referencing Calvinists who hold to both sin and lack of free will. For that matter, Coyne denies free will but does not consider culpability for committing crime to be a moot point—seems like a “go ask them about it” situation ;o)
    I would not say that I exhibit a “need for wanting free will to be real” but that I am asking, “What reason, really, is there to deny our common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion that we have free will?” What reason beyond interpretation of flashing lights which are interpreted via their particular worldviews—“the reading of tea leaves.”
    As for “who is wearing the blinders,” do not assume that they are what some may think them to be: purely unbiased scientists merely interested in ascertaining truth. I showed that Harris comes into the science with a bias and besides, one may argue that they assert lack of free will as a loophole to get around being judge by God.
    You may state, “Free will is inextricably bound to faith and salvation” but the bottom line is that we are being asked to deny common knowledge, common experience and common sense.

    Will,
    As you know from the video that you linked: the brain is a machine that is run by the mind just like software runs hardware and hardware is the means whereby the software expresses itself.

    TheOtherJeffC,
    The article does not assert that Harris and Coyne are wrong because they are atheists. It does not even say that they are wrong, actually. It notes that they are interpreting lights flashing through the lenses of their worldviews and notes that this is not enough evidence to buttress their conclusions.

    Genemachine,
    I would not only flatly deny that Harris and Coyne “base their world view on science” but would assert that science has absolutely nothing to do with atheism. Not only does science offer nothing to atheism but science was conceived of, developed and continued on for centuries without the least bit of regard for atheism.
    We have no evidence that matter brought about mind but we do have evidence that mind brought about matter. For example, life, the universe and everything is based on information and the only known source of information is mind. This is “evidence of thought without a brain.” Thus, their conclusions do not simply follow the “arrow of causation” but begin with metaphysics: their worldviews.
    If I smash a computer’s hardware the software cannot express itself through it. However, this does not mean that the software does not exist. This does not PROVE “mind” or “soul” but is an interesting analogy. Consider the reference to “A Beautiful Mind” in the video that is linked to in the intro of the article.

    Pompous Git,
    I am not certain who you are addressing since God was not mentioned in the article but…you answered your own question as God knowing “everything you have done, and will do” does not amount to lacking free will but amounts to God knowing what free will choices you have and will make.

  58. I apologize if the pattern of my comments suggests that I am thinking out loud—that is, in fact, what I am doing.

    The suggestion has been made that the “illusion of free will” is similar to that of a chess computer that can choose between two possible moves, but the choice is ultimately determined by the program that causes it to operate. What the computer lacks, to paraphrase Coyne’s position, is the ability to step outside of its programs structure and modify the program itself, because the computer is simply a construct of the way it has been programmed and it has no will that would allow it to modify its program. In short, the choices are determined and constrained by the program that directs its operations.

    A computer, however, is clearly programmed by an intelligent being and the choices it can make are determined by the intelligent being that wrote its program. If we are like computers, one would have to explain the existence of “the program” that determines and constrains our choices. The materialist, I suppose, is left with the explanation that we are programmed by Darwinian evolution: the program, (that is our reasoning, what we believe is true and the choices that result) is the products of random mutations that are selected because they cause adaptive behavior.

    If the “illusion of free will” causes us to behave in a manner that is adaptive, then Darwinian evolution would program us to believe that we are free agent. How then could we reach the conclusion that free will is an “illusion”. It seems to me to reach such a conclusion we would have the ability to step outside the program, evaluate it and modify it. This ability, however, is exactly what the determinist denies. It would thus appear to me that the position of the determinist who believes is Darwinian evolution is self-defeating.

    Indeed, it would seem to me that the ability to reason at all is dependent upon the existence of free will. Going back to the computer analogy, consider this. The computer reaches correct answers only when it is programmed correctly. If it is programmed to calculate that 2+2=5, then it will reach incorrect answers to math questions. It has no ability to recognize that it has been programmed incorrectly and correct the program. If we are similar to computers, on what basis can we trust our reasoning? Without free-will, we can only say that we believe what we must believe, not necessarily what is true.

  59. “This materialism it is the heart of all science. It is not based on any particular theories in neuroscience, any “particular, and peculiar”

    I think that it is helpful to draw a distinction between “methodological” materialism and “ontological” materialism.

    The “methodolgical” materialist adopts the assumption that everything can be explained by “natural” causes, but does not necessarily take a position on whether this assumption is actually true. This assumption, however, is valuable because it causes one to continue looking for natural causes even when they are not obvious at first. A theist can be a good scientist and a “methodological” materialist.

    An ontological materialists takes the position that “materialism” is in fact true–the world is comprised of only matter, energy, time and space. The ontological materialist is adopting a metaphysical viewpoint that cannot be proved or disproved by science. A theist cannot be an ontological materialist.

    I would agree that methodological materialism is the heart of science. I would disagree that ontological materialism is necessary to science.

    The picture gets complicated when a person interpretes scientific evidence based on the assumption that materialism is true. A theist can look at the same evidence and interprete it differently.

  60. Mariano said @ 1 February 2012 at 10:25 am

    Pompous Git,
    I am not certain who you are addressing since God was not mentioned in the article but…you answered your own question as God knowing “everything you have done, and will do” does not amount to lacking free will but amounts to God knowing what free will choices you have and will make.

    While God was not mentioned in the article, Atheism certainly was and Calvinist occurred in comments. It’s a little hard for a confirmed Agnostic not to think of God when such terms are bandied about. The Git’s five step deduction concludes that belief in free will and God’s omniscience are incompatible.

    The Git believes that either he possesses free will, or the illusion that he possesses free will (at least some of the time). There seems to be no way to ascertain which is the case. Additionally, he knows of no convincing argument that God exists, or that God does not exist. Therefore, the Git declares that these are things he does not know.

    Note: It is not the intention of the writer to demean, degrade, humiliate, despise, or disparage any god, godess, offspring of god, demiurge, inamorata, fetish or other supernatural being.

  61. “The Git’s five step deduction concludes that belief in free will and God’s omniscience are incompatible.”

    For the reasons I have previously suggested, your argument shows at most that a belief in free will is incompatitble with God’s “foreknowledge” of what free-agents will choose not with God’s “omniscience”: the attribute of ominiscience does not require a being to know that which your argument implies is impossible to know. As to whether your arguments succeeds, such a discussion would take us well off-topic.

  62. Mariano,

    I only note that many ideas in the past were once “common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion” and no longer are considered so.

    Thank you for the post and comments. They have been quite thought provoking.

  63. pauld saID @ 1 February 2012 at 3:56 pm

    For the reasons I have previously suggested, your argument shows at most that a belief in free will is incompatitble with God’s “foreknowledge” of what free-agents will choose not with God’s “omniscience”: the attribute of ominiscience does not require a being to know that which your argument implies is impossible to know. As to whether your arguments succeeds, such a discussion would take us well off-topic.

    If God is all-knowing, it seems reasonable to assume that he knows not only what did happen and what is happening, but also what will happen. You appear to want all-knowing to equate with knowing somewhat less than everything. This seems contradictory. But you are correct, we are drifting OT so this is my concluding remark.

  64. This also will be my last post regarding this topic, but I will attempt to clarify my point with the following syllogism

    Premise 1: An omniscent being knows all that it is logically possible to know (this premise is true by defintion)
    Premise 2: It is logically possible for an omniscient being to know what a free agent will do in the future in any possible set of circunstances without in anyway causing or interfering with the agents choice.. (This premise is highly controversial, but assume for a moment that it is true)

    If both of these premises are true, then it logically follows that men can have free will and God can know the future of any possible world.

    If you can demonstrate that premise 2 is false, you will merely establish that an omniscient God who does not interfere wth human freedom, cannot know the future.

  65. pauld

    >It is not entirely clear to me why this would be so. Imagine a human being who perceives he is hungry, but is trying to loose weight. He gives some thought to his hunger and then thinks he chooses not to eat.

    >What happened in this situation? For those who deny free-will one possibility is that the persons thoughts were simply irrelevant to his action. His behavior was already determined and his perception that his thinking is what caused his action was simply an illusion.

    Our hungry friend’s thoughts and are a subset of his behavior and behaviors are part of his phenotype. The genes responsible for building his body have been selected over millennia on their ability to produce phenotypes that lead to reproductive success. In a sense, the purpose of his body and mind is to further the goals of the genetic material that produced them.

    You said that he

    1. recognises his hunger,
    2. considers the consequences of not satisfying it, and
    3. selects a long term health goal.

    All 3 of these steps of deliberation have obvious consequences for the fate of his genetic material and are precisely the sort of thoughts that an animal with his mental capacity should have when considering matters of such genetic importance.

    1. responding to somatic needs
    2. looking ahead to long term goals even when the obvious consequence is more hunger
    3. choosing long term goals that are presumably anticipated to increase one or more of his health, status and sexual attractiveness

    Is he free? I think that comes down to how we define free. I do not think that he has fully “free want” in the sense that he could decide not to care about the discomfort of hunger or pain, or his health, status and sexual attractiveness though at times he may not care about one or another of these. If by free we mean that he can choose a preferred action based on his wants, the information he has, and his capacity for processing it, then he’s free. From another angle, his cognition is caused by his brain, so it cannot be free of whatever guides the movement of matter in his brain. The answer is down to definitions.

    So, given what we know about the origin, and “purpose” of thought, it would not seem possible that his thoughts were irrelevant to his action.

    >The second possibility for those who deny free-will is that his thoughts did cause him to act in a certain way, but the content of his thoughts was determined. In such a case, his perception that he considered two alternatives and chose not to eat was simply an illusion–the decision not to eat was already determined.

    Ok, we can call it an illusion.

    >What is the adaptive value of this illusion that has caused it to be selected? We could have skipped the step of thinking consciously at all and simply acted upon whatever it is that determined the content of our thoughts. This seems to work for other animals whose “meat computer” causes them to act in a certain way without reflection. It is also the way a silicon computer would work–it would not have the illusion that it is making free choices.

    If his perceived freedom to make these choices is ultimately an illusion, then it is a very useful one in that it causes him to employ his calorically expensive cognition on his wants which direct his behaviors towards actions that can reasonably be expected to, more often than not, benefit his genetic material.

  66. Mariano,

    >I would not only flatly deny that Harris and Coyne “base their world view on science” but would assert that science has absolutely nothing to do with atheism. Not only does science offer nothing to atheism but science was conceived of, developed and continued on for centuries without the least bit of regard for atheism.

    To be honest, I do not know the details of Harris and Coyne’s views and I cannot fully address the extent to which they “base their world view on science”. I cannot imagine that knowledge of evolution is not central to how they view their place in the cosmos. That they see the value of from scientific reductionism seems fairly apparent. Without reductionism I’m not sure that science can explain anything at all.

    I’m not sure when and where you are dating the start of science. Done properly it should always be an atheistic enterprise. It has certainly not helped the theist’s case. As our knowledge has grown the list of things god is believed to be involved in has steadily decreased. In many countries there is a real backlash against science such as biology due to the obvious contradiction with scripture.

    >We have no evidence that matter brought about mind

    I beg to differ. We have very clear evidence that biological evolution created our bodies and brains in which our minds reside.

    >but we do have evidence that mind brought about matter.

    This is news to me.

    >For example, life, the universe and everything is based on information and the only known source of information is mind.

    If you like, we can call matter information but I know of no evidence that any mind can create it.

    >This is “evidence of thought without a brain.”

    No, really, it’s not. It’s an unsupported assertion which is dependant on a slippery mangling of the word “information” as a synonym for matter. I do not think that that is justification to to claim any knowledge about the existance of god or the powers and workings of god’s mind.

    >Thus, their conclusions do not simply follow the “arrow of causation” but begin with metaphysics: their worldviews.

    This arrow of causation is surely a fundamental part of the world view and is perhaps a less important one in yours. Given their materialism and your rejection of it it is not surprising that they would come to different conclusions about the causes and freedom of our will.

    I hope you do not think that I have been too unfair or naieve about your pithy mind-first metaphysics. I am sympathetic to wild speculation that an unspecified a diety created the universe but am surprised that you can disagree that animals brains are a product of evolution or that brains cause minds.

    >If I smash a computer’s hardware the software cannot express itself through it. However, this does not mean that the software does not exist. This does not PROVE “mind” or “soul” but is an interesting analogy. Consider the reference to “A Beautiful Mind” in the video that is linked to in the intro of the article.

    I’ll need to rewatch your video, it’s getting very late here.

  67. The problem for free will is that experimental evidence shows that simple decisions, at least, are made about five or six seconds before we are conscious of having made them. That is, a researcher analyzing the brain waves of a research subject can predict what decision will be made before the subject is aware of having made it.

    So if we do have free will, maybe it resides in our unconscious mind.

    As an aside, wasn’t it a computer that said “I think, therefore I hum”?

  68. Genemachine:

    I think we are talking past each other. Perhaps I have not been clear. Let’s take a look at the first possibility I proposed:

    “Imagine a human being who perceives he is hungry, but is trying to loose weight. He gives some thought to his hunger and then thinks he chooses not to eat.

    What happened in this situation? For those who deny free-will one possibility is that the persons thoughts were simply irrelevant to his action. His behavior was already determined and his perception that his thinking is what caused his action was simply an illusion.”

    This hypothetical seems consistent with the results of the experiment described above by Alex Heyworth:

    “The problem for free will is that experimental evidence shows that simple decisions, at least, are made about five or six seconds before we are conscious of having made them. That is, a researcher analyzing the brain waves of a research subject can predict what decision will be made before the subject is aware of having made it.”

    I can see that the subject’s behavior is obviously adaptive and would be selected. That is not the point. The question is what is the point of illusion that “his thinking caused his action.” In the example proposed and in the experimental evidence cited, the conscious thinking came after some other “subconscious” part of the brain had already made the decision. Unconscious brain seem sufficient to cause the adaptive behavior. The conscious thought seems superfulous. In what way is the conscious thought adaptive and why would that characteristic be selected?

    The next possibility I described was:

    “The second possibility for those who deny free-will is that his thoughts did cause him to act in a certain way, but the content of his thoughts was determined. In such a case, his perception that he considered two alternatives and chose not to eat was simply an illusion–the decision not to eat was already determined.”

    Again, I am not questioning that the subject’s behavior is adaptive and beneficial. My question is that if his thoughts were determined by the laws of physics and way atom’s collide in his brain, what does the illusion of thinking add. A meat computer (or silicon) computer could have caused the same adaptive behavior without any conscious thinking or self-awareness.

    If by thinking consciously I can engage an independent (free) will that allows me to choose between options I can see the adaptive value of being conscious and self-aware. If my thinking is simply a by-product of the way atom interact in my brain, then perception that I am thinking seem like an unnecessary extravagance. Why would evolution create such unusual illusion.

    I hope that helps.

  69. pauld, you say “Why would evolution create such unusual illusion.”

    The simple answer is that it could simply be an accident. Many attributes of living things that we observe appear to have little obvious purpose.

    A more satisfying answer might be that it is an emergent property of the brain that exists only in species with a frontal cortex.

    An even more satisfying answer might be that consciousness and self awareness are not properties that either exist or do not exist. There is a continuum from single celled organisms to ourselves and other intelligent creatures, of gradually increasing consciousness and self awareness, concomitant with increasing brain size and complexity.

  70. pauld,

    >I think we are talking past each other. Perhaps I have not been clear.

    I’ll try to keep on track.

    >I can see that the subject’s behavior is obviously adaptive and would be selected. That is not the point. The question is what is the point of illusion that “his thinking caused his action.” In the example proposed and in the experimental evidence cited, the conscious thinking came after some other “subconscious” part of the brain had already made the decision. Unconscious brain seem sufficient to cause the adaptive behavior. The conscious thought seems superfluous. In what way is the conscious thought adaptive and why would that characteristic be selected?

    Whether a behavior can be performed without conscious perception may depend on the nature of the behavior. If the behavior is simple, like shivering, then can be presumably be done without the need for conscious perception. Could a party be planned without any concious thought? I do not think so.

    Among other things, planning a party would require our thinker to consider past and future, relationships between people, expectations, the preferences of other agents. It requires a very complicated model of the world that records salient details from the past and allows projection of future events. It’s my position that conscious thought is the use of such a complex model.

    >For those who deny free-will one possibility is that the persons thoughts were simply irrelevant to his action. His behavior was already determined and his perception that his thinking is what caused his action was simply an illusion.”

    I would dismiss this interpretation on the grounds that his thoughts and the state of his brain are so tightly linked that you cannot change either without changing the other in a very specific way. I think this is analogous to the impossibility of moving a body of water without moving the molecules it is composed of, or vice versa. Far from being irrelevant, there is a direct mapping from one to the other.

    >“The second possibility for those who deny free-will is that his thoughts did cause him to act in a certain way, but the content of his thoughts was determined. In such a case, his perception that he considered two alternatives and chose not to eat was simply an illusion–the decision not to eat was already determined.”

    >Again, I am not questioning that the subject’s behavior is adaptive and beneficial. My question is that if his thoughts were determined by the laws of physics and way atom’s collide in his brain, what does the illusion of thinking add. A meat computer (or silicon) computer could have caused the same adaptive behavior without any conscious thinking or self-awareness.

    I think that complex behaviors, like the example of planning a party, must involve the use of a model of the world as I described. I cannot comprehend any alternative. It has been argued that maybe even this can be done without consciousness. The consciousness of one person seems to be inaccessible to another and if we define conciousness as something only observable by experiencing it then perhaps we should remain agnostic as to whether our own conciousness is unique in the cosmos. (I think this is roughly the concept behind David Chalmers’ philosophical zombies).

    Rightly or wrongly, I reject this new solipsism and put less emphasis on the experience of consciousness. I think think that consciousness is is present in all evolved brains that use a model of the world to do the sort of conscious planning I outlined above. Even if I do not experience your consciousness my best guess is that is that it is broadly similar to mine.

    A funny thing is that if I am one of Chalmers’ philosophical zombies then I could reasonably be expected to claim to have a conscious experience regardless of not actually having one.

    >If by thinking consciously I can engage an independent (free) will that allows me to choose between options I can see the adaptive value of being conscious and self-aware.

    Independent of physical causation? What would you put in it’s place? Also, if we’re talking adaptive value then the possibilities of what can evolve are limited to what is possible through physical causation. An evolved trait must be caused by genetic code and it limited to the effects that genes can have on the organism though physical causation.

    >If my thinking is simply a by-product of the way atom interact in my brain, then perception that I am thinking seem like an unnecessary extravagance. Why would evolution create such unusual illusion?

    If the experience of consciousness is an optional by-product that has no power over on future actions then there’s no adaptive gain or penalty to having consciousness. It’s existence is, by definition, completely inconsequential.

    >I hope that helps.

    I hope this is a slightly better response.

  71. Alex,

    The diagram on the Wired article suggests that their “prediction quality” peaks at just under 60%. It may be not so much that “the decision is made and can be detected 6 seconds prior to being aware of it” as “a slightly better than random guess of the the outcome of the final decision can be made 6 seconds prior”. If this interpretation of the diagram is correct then headlines overstate the results and it is not clear exactly when the decision is considered to be “made”.

    6 seconds seems a long time but a bit of lag delay does not trouble me. When light hits my eyes it must be processed through my visual cortex and passed on to my conscious perception. By the time it gets that far it’s not only in the past but my perception is a pale shadow of the true event. I think that the brain does some neat tricks to make these delays invisible so that I can hit a baseball without consciously compensating for lag.

  72. Something for DAV…
    If my father died and I inherited enough money to travel for the rest of my life, i have the free will to do that or not. However, I love my job so I choose to work. Even more, what if I choose to tell my boss, I have enough money, I’ll work for free. I have made that decision based on free will. More money would be better. No job and traveling would be better. But…..my job is my view of Biblical truth is apart of being a man of God. It is a choice by my own free will to follow God’s standard of manhood.

    Also, what about martyrs…You think those guys and gals ever second guessed their lives? Nope. You know why? They made a choice to live for God and by His word. Hence, free will was used to give up there lives, even though they had husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, etc.

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