Are we on rails?

De gustibus non est disputandum

I’m not a philosopher but a couple of issues that have occupied philosophers over perhaps millenia remain unresolved. Let’s call the concepts free will and determinism. Of course a problem that arises immediately as there seem not to be consensus definitions of either concept. They also seem to be linked (in the opinion of many) in that agreeing or disagreeing with one of these concepts entails acceptance or rejection of the other. A frequently encountered strategy is to add an adjective. So we have libertarian free will, strict determinism and so on. Below is a diagram that attempts to summarize the various proposals.

Ancient Greek atomists: Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus proposed a reality of atoms and empty space and Epicurus added the idea of bias (παρέγκλισις) to introduce indeterminism into reality. Over two millenia later and with the world’s finest minds applied to free will and whether determinism rules this universe, no consensus (or means of testing hypotheses) has emerged so far.

So, are all of us free to choose what we believe and form our own opinions? I think Epicurus was right that the universe we occupy is fundamentally indeterminate and I also think humans who are conscious are able to make rational choices between available options. I’m also persuaded by Daniel Dennett that if this universe can be shown to be strictly determined (I’ll take an affordable bet this will not happen during my lifetime) this does not impinge significantly on the concept of free will. I don’t see how any of these issues can be resolved, hence de gustibus non est disputandum (you pays your money and you takes your choice) I look forward to hearing the views of fellow TSZ readers and contributors.

176 thoughts on “Are we on rails?

  1. Erik: So, in effect, you are unable to suppose that God exists. Understood!

    So, in effect, you are unable to answer my question. Understood!

  2. Erik,
    When you place all these strange “is my interlocutor worthy” preconditions on explaining how you know you are right about God, free will, and pre-destination, you really do seem to be running away from having a conversation.
    You never explained how you arrived at this:

    So, if free will is true (and it is, because otherwise we could have truthfully stopped judging people a long time ago)

    To prove myself worthy of your wisdom, I will point out that I do believe that God exists.
    But, problematically, I do not believe that she is aware of my existence. Or yours.
    Sooooo, about those attributes of your God…

  3. DNA_Jock:
    Erik,
    When you place all these strange “is my interlocutor worthy” preconditions on explaining how you know you are right about God, free will, and pre-destination, you really do seem to be running away from having a conversation.
    You never explained how you arrived at this:

    To prove myself worthy of your wisdom, I will point out that I do believe that God exists.
    But, problematically, I do not believe that she is aware of my existence. Or yours.
    Sooooo, about those attributes of your God…

    If free will does not exist, we continue to judge others because we can do no otherwise.

  4. DNA_Jock (quoting Erik): So, if free will is true (and it is, because otherwise we could have truthfully stopped judging people a long time ago)

    “Underlying the belief that free will is incompatible with determinism is the thought that no one would be morally responsible for any actions in a deterministic world in the sense that no one would deserve blame or punishment.” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

    There, explained, even though it was unnecessary, because you knew it anyway, being the smart guy that you are. Now, if you’d care to explain where you stand, the discussion might continue, but of course you never do.

  5. Erik: Now, if you’d care to explain where you stand, the discussion might continue, but of course you never do.

    Consider that the frisson of condescension that pervades many of your comments may reduce the likelihood of response.

  6. petrushka: If free will does not exist, we continue to judge others because we can do no otherwise.

    If there is no free will, why does recidivism vary?

  7. Alan Fox: If there is no free will, why does recidivism vary?

    Yea, I always knew you thought materialism was ridiculous.

  8. phoodoo: Yea, I always knew you thought materialism was ridiculous.

    Indeed, so nineteenth century. Physicalism, now, refute that if you can. Of course, neither confirmation nor refutation is possible. We’re left choosing Pascal’s wager. Or are we on rails?

  9. Alan Fox: Indeed, so nineteenth century. Physicalism, now, refute that if you can. Of course, neither confirmation nor refutation is possible. We’re left choosing Pascal’s wager.

    Yeah, so nineteenth century, therefore you pick seventeenth century instead. Good one 🙂

  10. Erik: Yeah, so nineteenth century, therefore you pick seventeenth century instead. Good one 🙂

    You got me. But God is timeless, or something, no? So truth is eternal, fixed. Whereas science and human understanding of reality is provisional, ephemeral, based on experience.

    My experience is whether there’s more to the physical universe is undecidable. Live and let live with that.

  11. Still no defense of the baseless faith that theistic systems or ethics somehow are more objective or factually based than any naturalistic system.

  12. Alan Fox: My experience is whether there’s more to the physical universe is undecidable. Live and let live with that.

    Creating a post on a topic that you have pre-decided is undecidable is your idea of live and let live? Got you again.

  13. Alan Fox,

    I think I am starting to get your materialist argument. I know there are only atoms and physical reality, but still…

    BTW, you have finally made Pascal’s wager make sense, congratulations. “I believe there could be a God, and ultimate morality, so I might as well live my life as if there is.”

    Makes perfect sense. Well done!

  14. Erik: Creating a post on a topic that you have pre-decided is undecidable is your idea of live and let live? Got you again.

    That free will is a bitch. Damned if I have it; damned if I don’t. Undecidable is what I said Eric. Unless you or anyone can show one or the other.

  15. Alan Fox: That free will is a bitch. Damned if I have it; damned if I don’t. Undecidable is what I said Eric. Unless you or anyone can show one or the other.

    This sounds very much different from “live and let live”.

  16. phoodoo: ultimate morality

    What’s that then phoodoo?

    Am I allowed to have slaves under that ‘ultimate morality’? Does your defense of ethic cleansing get a pass?

  17. Erik: This sounds very much different from “live and let live”.

    Live-and-let-live is a consequence of it being undecidable. As far as I am concerned, everyone is entitled to decide for themselves. Nobody is entitled to force their view on others. Anyone that wishes to have a civil discussion on the issue is welcome and cordially invited. Hence the OP.

  18. PR @ Erik.
    Maybe you take a decision as something different from me. It is possible for me to revise my view in the light of new evidence. All my views are provisional and revisable.
    ETA reviseable, revisable? Potato, potato.

  19. Erik: There, explained, even though it was unnecessary, because you knew it anyway, being the smart guy that you are.

    You are correct that I was aware of the problematic consequences of there being no free will, hence my desire to see you unpack your claim that

    So, if free will is true (and it is, because otherwise we could have truthfully stopped judging people a long time ago)

    We all agree that almost everybody believes that free will exists, and is therefore willing to judge others. The discussion is centered around whether this belief is an illusion or not. The fact that we still judge others merely means that we believe free will exists, not that it actually does. You do not seem to have thought this through at all.

  20. DNA_Jock: We all agree that almost everybody believes that free will exists, and is therefore willing to judge others.

    What???

    Ever major atheist and skeptic on the planet agrees that free will DOESN’T exist.

    What the hell are you talking about?

    Furthermore, for those outlier materialists who say somehow it still does exist, even though all of life is physical states of being, they have absolutely NO way of explaining how it possibly could, if your brain is all there is.

    Have you thought about this?

  21. phoodoo: Ever major atheist and skeptic on the planet agrees that free will DOESN’T exist.

    Citation please. I’ve not come across anyone who convincingly espouses the argument. It all falls apart one stage earlier because everyone has their own definition of what free will is.

  22. DNA_Jock: The fact that we still judge others merely means that we believe free will exists, not that it actually does. You do not seem to have thought this through at all.

    Of course I have thought it through. Namely, if free will, choices, judging right and wrong etc. are an illusion, then all institutions and achievements in humanity, society and civilisation, such as science, education, governance, etc. are all nonsense.

    Clearly, you have not thought this through at all! Because if rightness itself is an illusion, then you are not even wrong 😀

    I expected your stance to be very much close to nonsense. You exceeded my expectations.

  23. Alan Fox: I’ve not come across anyone who convincingly espouses the argument.

    You have also said you have never heard of the skeptic movement before. You are practically illiterate on the topic.

    I don’t claim they are convincing, I am telling you it is the prevailing wisdom of the /atheist/skeptic prominent glitterati. If you don’t even know this, why don’t you take a month off and read about the topic, before you keep saying such obvious nonsense?

  24. phoodoo,
    *translates phoodoo-speak*
    “No, I can’t back up my claims”.

    You write stuff. I write stuff. You are influenced by stuff. I’m influenced by stuff. What do you want, phoodoo? Are you bored and just want to troll? Do you think you affect World events by posting here. You need to be on the street with your banner.

  25. phoodoo: I am telling you it is the prevailing wisdom of the /atheist/skeptic prominent glitterati.

    I don’t believe you. It’s generational.

  26. phoodoo:
    Alan Fox,

    Live and let live brother.

    Now, go do some reading, so you can be informed.

    Funnily enough, just spent a pleasant couple of hours lunch on our terrace chewing the fat with a friend over leek soup with cheese and aïoli toast. It’s fun to interject some apparently burning issue (if phoodoo were to be believed) to be met with a blank stare. “No free will? Are you serious?”

  27. “I want to spend two minutes on free will, because that’s all it’s worth,” Krauss said. “As a physicist, I don’t think there’s free will. … At some level, the universe is deterministic.”

    Heard of Google?

    Neil Degrasse Tyson admits we have no free will…
    http://www.atheismandthecity.com/2017/03/neil-degrasse-tyson-admits-we-have-no.html

    Its not that hard to use once you get the hang of it.

    https://richarddawkins.net/2016/05/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/

    I think even you can do it Alan

    The incoherence of free will…Massimo Pigliucci

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rationally-speaking/200911/the-incoherence-free-will

    Maybe Jock knows how?

    https://samharris.org/the-illusion-of-free-will/

    Free will is an illusion so convincing that people simply refuse to believe that we don’t have it. In Free Will, Sam Harris combines neuroscience and psychology to lay this illusion to rest at last. Like all of Harris’s books, this one will not only unsettle you but make you think deeply. Read it: you have no choice.

    Jerry A. Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution is True.

    You guys have internet, right?

    “Yes, free will is an illusion,” say Dawkins and Gervais, “but don’t worry about it”

    Don’t worry about it

    While Pinker has not devoted an entire book to the subject, his volume The Blank Slate argues that what we know about genetics is “eroding the concept of free will and personal responsibility” and that our “conscious mind — the self or soul — is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.”

    How long do I have to do this….

    Saul Smilansky
    Smilansky, in “Free Will, Fundamental Dualism, and the Centrality of Illusion” in Robert Kane’s excellent book, The Oxford Handbook on Free Will(link is external), argues that even though libertarian, contra-causal free will doesn’t exist, believing that it does is essential to maintain strong moral commitments, respect for human agents, and meaning in life.

    Please, please make it stop….

    Biology: Free Will is a Lie and Why That Doesn’t Matter, Cassandra

    Stanford neuroscience professor Robert Sapolsky argues the former; all behavior can be explained by our genetic makeup. As we discover more about neurobiology, the idea of free will becomes less realistic; all of our actions and emotions connect to chemical processes within our minds that cannot be controlled. In fact, various studies examining identical twins – identical DNA – provide significant support to Sapolsky’s claim.

    Oh, you too Robert…

    Robert Sapolsky: “I Don’t Think We Have Any Free Will Whatsoever.”

    Heard you the first time…

    Susan Blackmore (atheistic psychologist): “The addition of truly random processes to a determined world, as in radioactive decay or quantum physics, does not provide a loophole for free will since these processes, if they are truly random, cannot be influenced at all.”[6]

    But Susan…

    Michael Shermer (atheistic founder of The Skeptic’s Society): “Even if it could be established that quantum uncertainties lead to random neuronal firings, that does not produce free will; it just adds another deterministic causal factor, one that is random rather than non-random.”[9]

    Ok, I expected this from you Michael..

    Stephen Hawking (atheistic physicist): “The molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets…. so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”[10]

    Stephen…did someone hack your voice computer..I can’t take it!!!

  28. Erik: Namely, if free will, choices, judging right and wrong etc. are an illusion, then all institutions and achievements in humanity, society and civilisation, such as science, education, governance, etc. are all nonsense.

    Exactly Erik. We’re all in the same boat. Whatever is true for you is true for me. But we are also free to be deluded. It’s all a free choice. What you can’t show us apparently, is what justifies your choice of belief. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my desire to interfere. I’m curious but it is up to you whether you want to engage or not.

  29. Alan Fox: phoodoo: Ever major atheist and skeptic on the planet agrees that free will DOESN’T exist.

    Citation please. I’ve not come across anyone who convincingly espouses the argument.

    Alan Fox: Alan Fox
    Ignored on May 20, 2021 at 2:47 pm said:
    phoodoo: I am telling you it is the prevailing wisdom of the /atheist/skeptic prominent glitterati.

    I don’t believe you. It’s generational.

    Alan Fox: “No free will? Are you serious?”

    Yes, serious

    Alan Fox: Alan Fox
    Ignored on May 20, 2021 at 2:45 pm said:
    phoodoo,
    *translates phoodoo-speak*
    “No, I can’t back up my claims”.

    Oh, right…

    phoodoo: Heard of Google?

    Its not that hard to use once you get the hang of it.

    I think even you can do it Alan

    Maybe Jock knows how?

    You guys have internet, right?

    Don’t worry about it

    How long do I have to do this….

    Please, please make it stop….

    Oh, you too Robert…

    Robert Sapolsky: “I Don’t Think We Have Any Free Will Whatsoever.”

    Heard you the first time…

    But Susan…

    Ok, I expected this from you Michael..

    Stephen…did someone hack your voice computer..I can’t take it!!!

    Alan Fox:

    Alan Fox:
    ,

    And?

  30. Alan Fox: I’m curious but it is up to you whether you want to engage or not.

    Is that right Alan?

    I wonder why some might not want to engage with you? Hm…

    And…

  31. Phoodoo, the question is whether the impression almost everyone admits to that they are able to make (constrained by the possible) free choices is delutional or not.

    How to decide?

  32. Erik: Namely, if free will, choices, judging right and wrong etc. are an illusion, then all institutions and achievements in humanity, society and civilisation, such as science, education, governance, etc. are all nonsense.

    Yup, as I predicted.
    We add ad consequentiam to your ad populum.
    Yes, that is a rather depressing scenario that you describe.
    Now, when are you going to demonstrate that it is not, in fact, true? You have not even tried yet.
    “Gee, no-one believes that” and “My, that’s depressing” are not valid arguments.

  33. Erik: Namely, if free will, choices, judging right and wrong etc. are an illusion

    I think free will is an illusion, but I don’t think judging right and wrong is an illusion.

    Erik:
    , then all institutions and achievements in humanity, society and civilisation, such as science, education, governance, etc. are all nonsense.

    It is unfortunate that you lump the lack of free will together with no judging of right and wrong, because they’re not the same thing, and none of this actually follows from free will being an illusion. Even on it’s surface it’s a totally vacuous statement.

    Now sadly, between phoodoo and yourself, you two clowns couldn’t possibly even begin to defend these claims. You like to spew out assertions such as these, but you both invariably always run away from defending them.

  34. Erik: Clearly, you have not thought this through at all! Because if rightness itself is an illusion, then you are not even wrong

    Naughty boy. You equivocated on the meaning of “right and wrong”.
    In a determined world, then “right and wrong” in the ethical sense loses meaning, I grant you, but beliefs can still be accurate or inaccurate.

  35. DNA_Jock: “Gee, no-one believes that” and “My, that’s depressing” are not valid arguments.

    They are to people who believe in magic invisible brains that can wish universes and living organisms into existence.
    In that world they live in, which is essentially make-believe, how emotionally taxing you find a proposition is largely a determinant of your beliefs in it’s truth-value.

  36. Rumraket: I think free will is an illusion, but I don’t think judging right and wrong is an illusion.

    OK.

    What do you mean by free will? Do you think that given precisely the same initial conditions, that the same result will ensue? My thinking is, due to quantum uncertainty, initial conditions can never be identical in reality. Besides, I don’t think we are capable of deciding whether our perception that we can make choices is real or delusional and there are zero consequences to holding either view.

  37. Alan Fox: What do you mean by free will?

    That’s my question to it’s proponents. The kind of free will we are told about, like libertarian free will, seems to me to reduce to a brute fact. That your choices are not determined by anything. They “just are”. It makes choices be things for which there is no explanation. To borrow a phrase from phoodoo, choice “just happens, that’s all”.

    What is ironic is these same people will squeal like pigs at the concept of brute facts given a different context(and will masturbate furiously to any mentioning of the principle of sufficient reason), but here they’re just fine with brute facts. I suspect they just haven’t realized this is what their position reduces to. They refuse to discuss or defend it all the time. Honestly, I think they don’t even think about it. Like, ever.

    Alan Fox:
    Do you think that given precisely the same initial conditions, that the same result will ensue? My thinking is, due to quantum uncertainty, initial conditions can never be identical in reality.

    I don’t know if quantum uncertainty is fundamental (there are superdeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics), but I think that’s besides the point. Things being determined by chance doesn’t get you free will. You’re not choosing the chance outcomes of quantum uncertainty. Rather the chance outcomes of quantum uncertainy is then what determines your choices.

    Quantum mechanics is no refuge of free will.

  38. “I Am Not A Believer In Free Will”: A Conversation With Physicist Brian Greene
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/dporterfield/2020/07/21/i-am-not-a-believer-in-free-will-a-conversation-with-physicist-brian-greene/?sh=55c838b217b8

    ” In his new book Until the End of Time, the US theoretical physicist Brian Greene says that our choices only seem free because “we do not witness nature’s laws acting in their most fundamental guise; our senses do not reveal the operation of nature’s laws in the world of particles”. In his view, we might feel that we could have done otherwise in a particular situation, but, short of some unknown psychic force that can intervene in particle motions, physics says otherwise.”

  39. Caltech physicist Sean Carroll. Carroll:

    If you jump out of a window, the laws of physics say that you are going to hit the ground. You can use all of the free will you want, but it’s not going to stop you from hitting the ground. So why would you think that it works any differently when you go to decide what shirt you’re going to wear in the morning? It’s the same laws of physics. It’s just that one case is a more crude prediction and the other case is a more detailed prediction.

  40. Sabine Hossenfelder:

    That is for what the universe without quantum mechanics is concerned. Add quantum mechanics, and you introduce a random element into some events. Importantly, this randomness in quantum mechanics is irreducible. It is not due to lack of information. In quantum mechanics, some things that happen are just not determined, and nothing you or I or anyone can do will determine them.

    Taken together, this means that the part of your future which is not already determined is due to random chance. It therefore makes no sense to say that humans have free will.

    I think I here spell out only the obvious, and use a notion of free will that most people would agree on. You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures. But there is no place for such a selection in the laws of nature that we know, laws that we have confirmed to high accuracy. Instead, whatever is about to happen was already determined at the big bang – up to those random flukes that come from quantum mechanics.

    Now, some people try to wiggle out of this conclusion by defining free will differently, for example by noting that no one can in practice predict your future behavior (at least not currently). One can do such redefinitions, of course, but this is merely verbal gymnastics. The future is still fixed up to occasional chance events.

    Others try to interpret quantum randomness as a sign of free will, but this is in conflict with evidence. Quantum processes are not influenced by conscious thought. Chaos is deterministic, so it doesn’t help. Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, remarkable as it is, has no relevance for natural laws.

    The most common form of denial that I encounter is to insist that reductionism must be wrong. But we have countless experiments that document humans are made of particles, and that these particles obey our equations. This means that also humans, as collections of those particles, obey these equations. If you try to make room for free will by claiming humans obey other equations (or maybe no equation at all), you are implicitly claiming that particle physics is wrong. And in this case, sorry, I cannot take you seriously.

  41. phoodoo,

    Phoodoo’s clip of Sabine Hossenfelder is from here. Well, she’s very confident except that:

    The purpose is to help those who understand the situation but have trouble making sense of it. Like I have had trouble.

    and isn’t into having her particular dogma questioned. See the comments. Questions unanswered: what does free will entail? What consequences are different between a strictly determined universe and a universe where bias affects random events as we see in biology.

  42. Suppose someone assumes (or had reasons to think) that free will meant incompatibilism or libertarian freedom.

    With that assumption in place, it would make sense for them to “deny free will” in the specific sense of denying that our capacity to choose and judge according to norms of thought and conduct requires a violation of the laws of fundamental physics.

    And of course one can deny that this capacity involves violating laws of physics without denying that we have this capacity as such.

    In that sense, it is perfectly coherent for someone to accept norms of conduct governing intentional action (and norms of thought governing cognitive acts) while at the same time denying a belief in free will.

    And if someone with that view were asked, “why not call yourself a compatibilist, since you are not a determinist?” , I think they would be well within their rights to respond, “because libertarian freedom, of the sort that is incompatible with physical causation, is what the believers in ‘free will’ have meant by that term ever since Descartes, and I am happy to allow them to have it.”

  43. Kantian Naturalist: Suppose someone assumes (or had reasons to think) that free will meant incompatibilism or libertarian freedom.

    With that assumption in place, it would make sense for them to “deny free will” in the specific sense of denying that our capacity to choose and judge according to norms of thought and conduct requires a violation of the laws of fundamental physics.

    And of course one can deny that this capacity involves violating laws of physics without denying that we have this capacity as such.

    In that sense, it is perfectly coherent for someone to accept norms of conduct governing intentional action (and norms of thought governing cognitive acts) while at the same time denying a belief in free will.

    And if someone with that view were asked, “why not call yourself a compatibilist, since you are not a determinist?” , I think they would be well within their rights to respond, “because libertarian freedom, of the sort that is incompatible with physical causation, is what the believers in ‘free will’ have meant by that term ever since Descartes, and I am happy to allow them to have it.”

    Thank you, that is well stated. I will also note that defenders of libertarian free will complain (in my opinion rightly) that compatibilists are re-defining terms. The kind of “free will” compatibilists are arguing for is just not good enough in the views of libertarians.

    Speaking of the idea of norms governing intentional action, I like to think of sentient beings like ourselves as effectively very sophisticated computers that react to their circumstances through their programming.
    We have inputs (what we experience of our surroundings – including interactions with other humans – through our senses) and for a given input we have outputs (how we react to our circumstance).

    Setting rules and boundaries and having norms then becomes part of the input we all experience, and we frequently find that given this input humans have different outputs than without this input. We become aware of these rules and they affect our behavior. There is no requirement that reject the notion that our actions are determined by the laws of physics. We can accept that reality and simultaneously understand that setting rules for behavior and informing each other that these rules are in place, affects how we behave. Just like changing inputs for a computer can change it’s outputs.

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